Language matters. The Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen states that the EU has shipped 10 million vaccines to the UK – and another 30 million to the rest of the world – but has yet to receive a single vaccine in exchange.
The EU has done no such thing. The American pharmaceutical company Pfizer produces the Turkish-German BioNTech vaccine at a plant in Belgium, relying on critical supplies of lipid nanoparticles made in Yorkshire (the complex part) and on a long list of inputs from dozens of countries.
Pfizer then ships these vaccines to global clients, some of whom signed their delivery contracts long before the EU committed to its doses. BioNTech did a marvellous job – with seed money from the German state – but the role of the EU itself in this web of international cooperation was minimal. Europe as a whole failed to make the early investment needed to accelerate the scientific and manufacturing process.
Should the UK hand over part of AstraZeneca’s production from its UK sites and delay its own rollout as an act of fraternal solidarity? In normal circumstances the answer would be obvious. Of course it should, starting with Ireland.
The natural sentiment of the British people is to help Europe defend itself against the third wave now spinning out of control, even though the reason it is happening is that Europe’s leaders lacked the political courage to take action six weeks ago when it was already clear that the B117 variant was spreading everywhere.
Emmanuel Macron defied calls from French scientists and frontline doctors for a lockdown in late January. The consequence of that fateful decision is painfully evident. Greater Paris has run out of critical care beds, and spare capacity in the regions is vanishing fast. Paris has not yet reached the point of triage – when doctors must choose whom to save, as in Bergamo – but it is uncomfortably close.
Britain should of course divert vaccines to help France avoid the worst. But the hostile posture of both Mr Macron and the EU over everything to do with Britain and Brexit makes this very difficult.
The problem is not von der Leyen and the Commission. The corps of EU ambassadors in Brussels (Coreper) has, if anything, been more aggressive and that impetus is coming from national capitals, strangely concentrated into a wolf-pack ferocity at the gathering in the Justus Lipsius Building.
Countries assumed to be friendly have repeatedly proved to be hostile inside Coreper. The current Danish government behaves like an enemy. The idea of activating the war-time powers of Article 122 to seize factories and suspend property rights came from the European Council’s secretariat – and therefore was cleared through Berlin and Paris. It did not come from Mrs von der Leyen.
The EU has reciprocated on almost nothing since the trade deal. It has allowed – conducted? – what can only be characterised as a smear campaign against the AstraZeneca vaccine. It is at the same time demanding more of the vaccine that nobody wants to take any longer, briefing aggressively that Britain is trying to grab millions of doses allegedly stored at a Halix plant in the Netherlands. This Halix story is a concocted grievance. The tiny Dutch plant is irrelevant.
The purpose of so much agitation is to deflect blame by convincing public opinion that Britain is responsible for much of what is now going badly wrong. It is the primordial scapegoat reflex. This makes friendly solidarity a big ask.