Who could have believed that just over a month after the United Kingdom left the European Union “good and proper”, with the end of the transition period and agreeing a free trade deal on Christmas Eve, that Boris Johnson could claim the moral high-ground in a skirmish with European Commission chieftain Ursala von der Leyen, pictured, over Covid-19 vaccines?
Until the short-lived ‘vaccine war’, Brexit was turning out to be a bit of a disaster as many predicted, with Scottish fishermen claiming red-tape was leaving their fresh catches destined for French dining tables rotting on quaysides and other exporters struggling to deal with the additional bureaucracy.
And then out-of-the blue, the European Commission President managed to become ‘Ursula The Terrible’ – and not just in the jingoist British tabloid press – as she spectacularly united Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Archbishop of Canterbury in condemning threats by Brussels to block free-trade in Ireland and endanger the Belfast Good Friday peace agreement.
The very public row with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, was simply seen as EU leaders trying to shift blame for Europe-wide vaccine shortfalls.
Triggering Article 16
At one point the European Commission announced export controls on vaccines produced in the EU, in a move that would prevent supplies reaching the UK via the open-border between EU-member state, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, by triggering what is known as Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.
That the European Commission backed down as soon as it was clear that both Dublin and London as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) were outraged is, I suppose, to von der Leyen’s credit.
Sensitivity in Northern Ireland
But the Commission clearly doesn’t seem to understand the sensitivity of the Northern Ireland situation, despite von der Leyen’s quoting the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back at the UK government during a particular sticky period in the Brexit free trade talks last year over how to handle Northern Ireland in the Brexit free trade talks.
Back then, the EU boss reminded the UK government of Thatcher’s quote from 1975: “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future treaty on trade”.
It was a great soundbite! Especially so, after the UK’s Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis admitted to the House of Commons that the UK might try to avoid creating a hard border between the British mainland and Northern Ireland by breaking a “very specific” part of its international (withdrawal) treaty with the EU.
That rightly caused an outcry, as I blogged last September, and was condemned by all five previous living UK Prime ministers as well as the EU.
Reopening a can of worms
But what is so dangerous now is that what the European Commission has done is reopen the can of worms over how to make the Brexit free trade deal work when it comes to trade between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, as the BBC reported.
There are plenty on the Loyalist and Unionist side in Northern Ireland deeply unhappy that the Brexit free trade deal, which kept Northern Ireland, in effect, in the EU single market for goods and imposed extra checks on goods arriving from England, Wales and Scotland.
And now thanks to the cack-handed way the European Commission has handled this latest rift with the UK, not only has it allowed Boris Johnson to portray himself as the calm and reasonable stateman, but it has also provided the Protestant Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster to call for the entire Brexit trade deal affecting the region to be withdrawn. And there are quite a few Tory Brexiters keen to weigh-in on her side.
Quip about the Pope
And it really doesn’t help for a European Commission spokesman, while admitting mistakes had been made, to quip: “We have a saying that only the Pope is infallible.”
Talk about red rag to a bull! Mark Wallace, chief executive of the ‘ConservativeHome’ website, summed it by using an English sense of humour to mock the Commission’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the situation, by saying: “I don’t know about you, but I always find banter about the Pope is a sure-fire way to calm things down in Northern Ireland”.
Saddened, but not surprised
I’m saddened, but not totally surprised by this latest souring of EU-UK relations. I helped in Labour’s remain in the EU campaign during the Brexit referendum, despite having misgivings about the lack of democratic accountability in the EU and the way the European Commission can come across all high and mighty.
But, unlike so many Remainers, I accepted the Brexit result. That’s what democracy is supposed to be about, even if the other side are cleverer – or more devious – in getting their message across.
That’s why I supported Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner in the Labour leader and deputy leader elections, as I feared Keir Starmer was tarnished with just wanting to have another referendum to overturn the original outcome. We don’t like people like Donald Trump who cry ‘foul’ when they lose. Why should it be any different with EU referendums?
So, let’s make the best of what many see as a bad free trade deal with the EU and try to build on what we’ve got. It is surely better than ‘no deal’.
But this latest row over vaccines in the middle of the corona virus pandemic sadly reconfirms my view, which goes back long before Brexit was even mentioned, that the EU needs to be reformed. But with the UK out of the way that is unlikely to happen any time soon!
+ Main image:The Irish Times