Europe’s vaccination debacle is a bizarre tale, and one with serious consequences. The fiasco – diplomats are using that word – brings together the coronavirus pandemic, the weaknesses of the EU bureaucracy and also questions about which seeds can be planted in gardens in Northern Ireland. The month of February sees the beginning of better weather in Northern Europe, longer days and the first flowers of spring. Many of us are thinking about bringing colourful flowers to our gardens and have begun ordering seeds online. But the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster revealed that gardeners in her part of the UK have a big problem.
Seeds and plants on order from popular garden suppliers in other parts of the UK – Scotland and England – are governed by new ‘import’ rules as a result of Brexit. The formal name bandied about is 'the Northern Ireland Protocol'. That 'protocol' means that since 1 January this year products can be exported from the EU – including the Irish Republic – to Northern Ireland, without customs checks because Boris Johnson’s British government agreed that Northern Ireland after Brexit would remain in the EU single market for goods and custom rules.
In practical terms that legal fudge means garden seeds sent from England and Scotland to Northern Ireland must comply with added checks. This new bureaucracy is time consuming and costly, so some British suppliers are refusing to send seeds to Northern Ireland until the tangle of form-filling is simplified. There have also been complaints about empty shelves in major Northern Ireland supermarkets, again caused by the new rules, leading to big questions about Northern Ireland’s future. Into these practical problems comes the bitter row between the European Commission and the coronavirus vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca over lack of vaccine supplies.
The resulting vaccination fiasco is complicated but the facts are clear. The UK government has a poor record of preventing coronavirus deaths, with more than 100,000 fatalities so far. But the UK has done well in securing vaccine supplies and getting jabs in the arms of its citizens. The EU, however, and specifically the EU Commission, has been slow, and some say incompetent in ensuring Europe’s vaccine supplies. The Commission blamed the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, the company which is successfully delivering supplies to Britain – and this is where the crunch comes.
In a major diplomatic bungle, the EU Commission tried to trigger a process known as 'Article 16' of the Northern Ireland protocol, to control the export of coronavirus vaccines from factories the EU to the UK, but without understanding the profound implications for all parts of Ireland. The Irish Republic government in Dublin was not consulted. Nor was the Belfast administration of Arlene Foster. Irish Republicans in Sinn Fein and Ulster unionists in the Democratic Unionist Party often agree on nothing much – but they are united in furiously condemning the EU’s actions. Thankfully the Irish prime minister Micheal Martin was able to 'welcome' a humiliating climbdown by the Commission.
These EU blunders still matter. First, a universal enemy, the pandemic, knows no borders. Until the whole world is vaccinated the prospect of even deadlier coronavirus mutations remains a threat to us all.
Second, the debacle demonstrates one of the EU’s great failings. The Brussels bureaucracy is cumbersome, and Germany, in particular, as the country which developed the first accepted vaccine, has the right to feel aggrieved at supply problems. France, the Netherlands and other EU countries have also been slow to vaccinate their people. If the principle of working together is to be taken seriously in the EU, Brussels needs to get its act together.
Third, there is – once more – Northern Ireland and its gardeners. What should people in Northern Ireland make of their peculiar situation? They are in the UK, can claim British passports, but are not British enough to enjoy easy trade between Belfast and London, Cardiff or Edinburgh. They are on the island of Ireland – and can claim Irish passports too – but they are not part of the Irish Republic, so formally not in the EU either.
How long can this peculiar and precarious arrangement continue? The Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated to prevent a return of the 30 years of violence known as 'the Troubles' in which more than 3000 people died. That protocol, and indeed the entire Brexit agreement, has been in place for just one month and already the strains are obvious.
British lorry drivers trying to get to France face new checks. Scottish fishermen are angry that their prawns, crabs and scallops are not getting to the European market. Gardeners in Northern Ireland want seeds and plants. The vaccine row is just this week’s version of post-Brexit trade and other tensions. There is an old saying about marriage: 'marry in haste, repent at leisure'. The Brexit deal was concluded at breakneck speed and already looks fragile. Some British MPs want a rethink. The moral is that if you negotiate in haste, you may find out that ingenious diplomatic solutions that look good on paper have terrible consequences in the real world.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National