DOMINIC LAWSON: We’re on the moral high ground in the EU vaccine fiasco – so please let’s stay there

The late Robert Conquest, historian and poet, declared: ‘The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.’

No better example has ever been provided of the accuracy of this witticism than by the European Commission over the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

So when the Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, over the weekend once again threatened to punish Britain for, in effect, outpacing the EU on vaccine delivery, you might almost think this was Nigel Farage wearing an Ursula von der Leyen latex face mask.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has once again threatened to punish Britain for, in effect, outpacing the EU on vaccine delivery

Even the former Ukip leader could not have dreamt of a more ingenious way to make the British people grateful that they had voted to leave the European Union.

It comes barely a month after von der Leyen threatened to create a hard border between the north and the south of Ireland, supposedly to prevent the UK from receiving vaccine supplies via any EU nation (although it is the Republic of Ireland which would very much like to have the sort of supply being enjoyed by Northern Ireland, as part of the UK).

Humiliated

In both cases, von der Leyen acted imperiously, without consulting properly at the national level. 

When, in February, she threatened to fracture the Good Friday Agreement — the guarantor of what is known as the ‘all-Ireland economy’ — the Irish and British premiers made clear to her she must have lost her senses, and von der Leyen backed down.

Now she has tried another way, saying: ‘We have the option of banning a planned export. That is the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries.’

France’s President Macron has supported von der Leyen’s stance against the UK amid the vaccine row

As a German journalist friend explained to me (though it was obvious): ‘By other countries, she means the UK.’

Yet while France’s President Macron has supported her stance, other EU member states such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland are far from happy at the idea of the Commission using an unprecedented export ban to prevent private companies on their soil from meeting their contractual obligations.

More from Dominic Lawson for the Daily Mail…

It is clear that Ursula von der Leyen is humiliated by the fact that the Anglo-Swedish manufacturer of the vaccine created by Oxford University’s Jenner Institute has been fully meeting its order book with the UK, but is struggling to do so with the EU.

It is a particular problem for her because it was she who demanded that the vaccine procurement process should be handed over lock, stock and vial to the Commission, rather than let the 27 member states negotiate their own arrangements.

This is especially a cause of fury in her own country, Germany, since the Pfizer vaccine — which the UK was the first in the world to deploy — was actually invented by its German partner, BioNTech. 

Not only are German newspapers now running headlines such as ‘We envy you, Britain’, the state of Israel, which has an economy no larger than that of Ireland’s and which has relied entirely on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, has also shown how a little country can show a clean pair of heels to the lumbering giant of the EU.

AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot (pictured) said an agreement was signed with the UK three months before one was struck with Europe

This lesson has not been lost on some of the smaller EU nations, such as Hungary and Slovakia, which are now acting outside the Brussels-led procurement scheme to purchase millions of doses of the Russian Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine.

Last week, even the German health minister, Jens Spahn, said he might follow suit and do a deal with Moscow: ‘I am very much in favour of doing it nationally if the EU does not do something.’

This is a definite stab at Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had ordered the German health ministry to hand over vaccination procurement negotiations to the European Commission (i.e. Ursula von der Leyen, who had failed upwards into the Brussels firmament, having been a notably incompetent minister in several of Merkel’s administrations).

It’s clear there has been a genuine problem for the EU (one not entirely of its making) in that the Belgian plant where most of its AstraZeneca doses are being made has been plagued with production problems, resulting in it being unable to meet its promised delivery schedule to the European Union.

Favourable

At the same time, AstraZeneca is not only having no such problems with its manufacturing here, it is still supplying us with vaccines from its Belgian plant.

There are two reasons for that — and neither puts the Commission in a favourable light. The first was explained by AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot in an interview two months ago with a group of European journalists.

Guy Verhofstadt pointed out that the British negotiated a much better and more thorough deal with AstraZeneca than the EU

‘We basically signed an agreement with the UK three months before we did it with Europe,’ Soriot said. ‘So they had a head start. We were able to quite quickly take the UK supply chain and improve it.’

In other words, perfecting the complex process of manufacturing billions of doses of a biological entity, and with elements from different sites, had been given the necessary lead time in the UK.

The other reason lies in the differing nature of the contracts drawn up between AstraZeneca and these two buyers. It was the former Belgian PM and strongly Euro-federalist leader of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, Guy Verhofstadt, who has spelt this out most clearly.

He examined the two contracts and observed: ‘Unlike the EU, the UK contract has an additional article stating that AstraZeneca ‘shall not enter into any agreement with any foreign government . . . that would by its terms conflict with AZ’s obligation hereunder’.’

And Verhofstadt also pointed out: ‘The EU contract is based on an ‘estimated time schedule’, full stop. In the British contract, by contrast, there is a precisely described procedure to guarantee a timely delivery of doses.’

In other words, the British negotiated a much better and more thorough deal. This is quite something from Guy Verhofstadt, who had been more voluble in his denunciations of Brexit than perhaps any other European politician.

But there is worse to come (especially if you are President Macron).

Contemptible

Last week, the first batch of a Covid-19 vaccine made by Valneva in Livingston, Scotland, rolled off the production line.

The UK Government had ordered 100 million doses of the Valneva product, making it our equal first choice along with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Yet Valneva is. . . a French company.

Its chief executive, Franck Grimaud, explained why it will be delivering to the UK months before it will to the EU (probably not until 2022): ‘The UK responded the fastest. They took all the risks . . . and immediately forwarded €96 million to use before the end of last December. It’s logical that, under contract, we undertook to deliver to them first.’

It is, of course, Macron who had also foolishly denigrated the AstraZeneca vaccine as being ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people.

It is partly as a result of such unwarranted aspersions of this nature — similar false claims had been propagated via the German health ministry — that vast stocks of the vaccine are lying unused in those countries (at least six million doses in Germany and France).

This was actually pointed out by the EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides: ‘Even with the regrettable challenges around production capacity and deliveries, there are reports of unused reservoirs of vaccines across the EU.’

This makes von der Leyen’s threats all the more contemptible. I can’t improve on the assessment of her fellow countryman, Wolfgang Munchau, the founder of the EuroIntelligence group.

Last week, Munchau observed: ‘EU leaders keep discrediting AstraZeneca to distract from their own mistakes and to puncture the notion of a Brexit-induced British success story.

‘In their vengeful spite, EU leaders damaged the only strategy they had for getting out of the mess . . . They resort to what they know best — the blame game. It was always like this, but this time it costs thousands of lives.’

But we should not retaliate in like manner. In this, the UK is on the moral high ground, and we should stay there.

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