Sunday, January 31, 2021

Who is the bully now? (EN)

Since I posted yesterday about the escalation of the covid vaccine row between the EU and the UK, events have taken an even uglier turn.

There is no doubt that the EU is on the defensive after its blunder Friday on the Irish border, even if it reversed it within hours (see a more elaborate explanation in my yesterday's post... not such an outrage really, but an extremely bad move politically). But the humiliation of the EU that is feasted in British media and partly across the continent these days doesn't serve any good purpose. It is mostly driven by schadenfreude and fundamentally wrong. And the righteousness and hypocrisy of the British establishment are becoming unbearable.

The EU is presented as the villain from having attempted - in the face of a desperate shortage due to pharma companies reneging on their commitments - to protect its EU-made contracted vaccine supplies from the diversion to other countries. Meanwhile, the UK itself is operating a de facto export ban on AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccines manufactured on its territory, pretending that it has a right to monopolize the supply because it signed a contract earlier, notwithstanding AZ's contractual obligation to also supply the EU from its UK-based factories.

It now transpires that in addition to AZ having shipped EU-made vaccines to the UK last year, Pfizer also has been sending significant quantities to the US, while both companies are failing to deliver to the EU on their contracts. The EU is thus punished not for being slow, but for having leveraged its collective bargaining power to obtain the cheapest prices.

The UK "generously" offers to allow AZ to deliver vaccines to the EU... once it has finished inoculating all its adult population, sometime in autumn. Meanwhile the EU is entering the third wave of the pandemic with very low immunisation rates due to a combination of a slow start vaccination process across its 27 member states and insufficient delivery by the vaccine providers - Pfizer and AZ.

Righteousness and hypocrisy are in even sharper display when it comes to the Irish border. The EU is universally condemned for having announced (and quickly reversed) the activation of Article 16 of the Norther Ireland protocol of UK's Withdrawal Agreement, with a view to prevent backdoor export of vaccines to the UK. But that Article 16 is part of the protocol - so invoking it cannot be construed in any way as a breach of the protocol. Again, as I also wrote yesterday, getting anywhere near Article 16 was a political gaffe... but certainly not an "incredible act of hostility" as Arlene Foster presented it. If invoking Article 16 amounts to a quasi-declaration of war, why was it stipulated in the protocol in the first place?

What was, indeed, an incredible act of hostility were the UK Government's plans, last year, to override the Northern Ireland protocol by creating a different and contradictory legal framework through its proposed Internal Market act (abandoned in the meantime).

But why would British politicians, especially on the tory and DUP side, feign unlimited outrage? Part of the motivation is to change the narrative from last year and present the EU rather than the UK as untrustworthy to uphold its commitments. But more importantly, because they want to use this opportunity to abolish the Northern Ireland protocol altogether and wriggle out of the agreement that they ratified. 

Who is the bully now?

Make no mistake: the public shaming of the EU for the sin of having stood up for itself in the covid vaccines scandal - admittedly having got it wrong politically and subsequently backpedaling on the issue of controlling the Irish border - is not a legitimate reaction born out of genuine outrage. It is a deliberate drive to humiliate and bully the EU in the context of post-Brexit politics, with the ultimate aim to vindicate Brexit.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The dangerous escalation between the EU and the UK on covid-19 vaccines (EN)

The snowballing developments over the past few days, after AstraZeneca (AZ) announced a significant cut in its scheduled supplies of covid-19 vaccine to EU countries, have escalated to a war-like rhetoric between the UK and the EU, a raid by Belgian authorities at the AZ production site in Seneffe and the introduction of export controls on EU-manufactured vaccines. What's happening, really, and where is this coming from?

The narrative in the media about these events has been so far surprisingly simplistic and one-sided - not just in British tabloids like The Daily Mail, but also in usually much more sober outlets like The Guardian or the BBC and in many continental newspapers. It basically says that, due to its well-known bureaucratic heaviness, the EU was late to pass contracts with vaccine suppliers, slow with approving and distributing the jabs for use in its Member States and ineffective in the whole set-up of the vaccination campaign, which is in shambles. By contrast, the UK has been much nimbler with both purchases and approvals and as a result is way ahead of continental Europe with its vaccination efforts. Faced with a shortfall in vaccine supply, the EU has been throwing its weight around and trying to bully Britain into surrendering its own stocks. 

It's fair to say that, at least for the time being, the EU is losing the narratives' war.

The actual story, however, might be considerably more complicated. 

In this post I will present an alternative interpretation, largely based on information in the public domain, but also in part on speculation since some pieces of the puzzles are still missing. The near future may shed light on these aspects.

In a nutshell, my hypothesis is that the escalation is not simply due to the EU bureaucrats having 'lost the plot', but rather provoked by the conduct of AZ and of its CEO (which has been the immediate trigger for the crisis) and by perceived foul play from the UK on a very sensitive, politically explosive issue. 

All parties have made mistakes and the situation is getting out of hand. The stakes are huge and the logic is increasingly that of a zero-sum game, which risks durably poisoning the post-Brexit relations.