EU 'fiasco' on N Ireland heaps pressure on Commission

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Ursula von der LeyenImage source, EPA
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Will Ursula von der Leyen come under more pressure to resign?

"Misjudgement", "mismanagement", "blunder"... and words that were far, far stronger.

That's what I've been hearing from EU insiders about the European Commission's initial decision on Friday to suspend part of the Brexit deal agreement on Northern Ireland, in its rush to impose restrictions on Covid vaccines, or components of vaccines, exported from the bloc.

The EU vaccine roll-out is in very clear trouble. EU countries are openly desperate to get hold of the jabs they have been promised to put in voters' arms. But representatives of member states I've spoken to say they were blindsided by the European Commission move.

"We certainly weren't asked about it," one EU diplomat told me. "If we had been, we would have shouted loudly that it was a terrible idea. The decision was taken, in a hurry, at the top or close to the top [of the Commission]."

Even more astonishing, considering the huge sensitivity of the Northern Ireland chapter of the Brexit deal, EU member Ireland wasn't consulted, or even informed, of the Commission's intention.

Nor were those in the Commission with intimate knowledge of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland arrangement: former EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier and colleagues.

They tried to intervene on Friday evening, urging a swift U-turn on the policy, even as Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin held separate conversations with the European Commission president.

'What do we look like now?'

Remember just how long and difficult the Brexit negotiations were in reaching an agreement on Northern Ireland? Think about how often the EU lectured the UK government about the importance of respecting the detail of the arrangement; how peace in Northern Ireland was at stake.

Yet the impression the European Commission gave on Friday - however incorrect or unintended, which is what it insists - is that those concerns could be thrown aside in a heartbeat.

EU national diplomats, whom I've spoken to over the years as part of my Brexit coverage, appeared frustrated and dismayed.

Image source, Reuters
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Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Ireland wasn't pre-informed of the Commission decision

"Over and again, I've repeated to the press the importance and the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland and how we in the EU appreciated and respected the importance of getting the Brexit deal right," a representative from a prominent EU country told me.

"And what do we look like now? This was a disaster. It plays into the hands of EU-haters and UK opponents of the Brexit deal."

Another diplomat questioned whether the team around Commission President Ursula von der Leyen actually understood the Irish protocol in the Brexit deal. "They came in right at the end. Most of the deal was agreed under [former Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker. Maybe they just don't get it?"

The European Commission back-tracked late on Friday (although it has reserved the right to revisit the issue, it says, if it sees EU-manufactured vaccines entering the rest of the UK via Northern Ireland).

The U-turn was publicly welcomed by Micheál Martin. But take a look at political and press reaction in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and you'll see a lot of damage had already been done.

'Car crash in slow motion'

But Friday's "Northern Ireland fiasco" as I've heard it referred to, doesn't feature very prominently in the media elsewhere in Europe. The focus remains on the absence of vaccines, promised by the European Commission, which agreed contracts with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of all its members.

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There appears to be general dismay at the EU's vaccination programme

Here again EU politicians seem increasingly irritated with what is now perceived as incompetence at the highest levels of the Commission. Friday's mess-up over the Brexit Northern Ireland agreement is being described to me as "a symptom" of mismanagement of the wider vaccine programme.

"It's like watching a car crash in slow motion," one irate EU diplomat told me. "President von der Leyen is a medical doctor. She wanted to take over the mass purchase of vaccines for all the EU - as a high-profile exercise. Normally health issues are dealt with nationally. This hasn't been a great advertisement for handing over powers to Brussels. I think that's the lesson member states will take away from this."

It should be said that smaller, less well-off EU countries are still relieved the Commission represented them on the vaccine market, otherwise, they say, they'd have found themselves "at the back of the queue".

There is definite EU-wide anger too at pharmaceutical companies, which have delayed vaccine deliveries. Especially AstraZeneca, which is understood to have promised the EU 100 million doses before the end of March. It has now said it can supply only a fraction of that amount.

But by now - when EU governments look at how far ahead the UK and the US are compared to the EU in their vaccine roll-outs - blame is also being directed at Ursula von der Leyen. Some in the EU say privately she may come under pressure to resign.

The Commission stands accused of not investing enough in expanding vaccine production sites. And Bavarian leader Markus Soeder - a favourite to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor - is far from alone when he lashed out at the Commission last week for being "too late" in concluding vaccine contracts.

AstraZeneca's argument (rejected by the EU) as to why it's honouring its agreement with the UK first, is, it says, because the Johnson government signed on the dotted line three months before Brussels.

So now what?

The priority for people across the EU is protecting themselves and their families. They were promised a vaccine action-plan they're not - or not yet - getting. Which, in turn, is having an impact on domestic politics. Take the Netherlands or Germany, for example, as they head towards parliamentary elections.

Vaccine appointments have been cancelled in France, Portugal, Spain and beyond because of dwindling supplies.

Could the tone soften?

The European Commission is under pressure to take effective action. But of late it has given the impression of firing hastily in all directions - threatening AstraZeneca with legal proceedings; demanding some of the company's vaccines be diverted to the EU from production centres in the UK; risking alienating allies in Japan, Canada and Australia with new authorisation requirements for vaccine exports from the EU; and dragging the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland into the fray.

None of this, so far, has resulted in reducing the EU's vaccine shortfall.

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WATCH: Pfizer v Oxford v Moderna – three Covid-19 vaccines compared

Of course, not all aspects of the current vaccine debacle are the fault of the Commission. Aside from pharmaceutical company delays, the EMA, the EU's medical regulator, has been slow to approve the use of individual vaccines. Some EU countries have proved more efficient than others with their national roll-out programmes.

AstraZeneca and others have promised far larger vaccine supplies for the EU come the spring. Perhaps the EU mood towards the Commission may then soften, but not now, while the health threat from Covid looms large.