EU and UK ‘vaccine wars’ underline failure of capitalist governments to deal with pandemic

Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission president, under growing pressure over bungled EU vaccine roll-out (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The European Commission has been forced into a humiliating climb-down following its attempts to control exports of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, which threatened a ‘vaccine hard border’ in Ireland.

The EU’s threat to stop vaccines crossing freely from the EU to Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU’s single market, sparked a diplomatic crisis between the UK, Ireland, and the EU. The World Health Organisation became embroiled, warning that “vaccine nationalism” would seriously disrupt the vaccine roll out across Europe.

The row began when the Anglo-Swedish owned pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said that manufacturing problems at one of its European factories meant it would deliver only 25% of planned doses to the EU in the first quarter of 2021.

The EU Commission demanded that some of the shortfalls to the EU should be made up from the 100 million vaccine doses allotted for Britain. The UK government said that could breach AstraZeneca’s contractual obligations with them, made three months before the EU deal with AstraZeneca.

Having presided over the UK government’s disastrous Covid policies that have left over 100,000 dead – a much higher figure than any other European country – Boris Johnson is desperately driving on the UK vaccination programme, dismissing concerns about effectiveness. However, the EU commission threatened that if AstraZeneca did not agree to its terms, other contracted vaccine supplies to the UK that are made in the EU, in particular, the 40 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine manufactured in Belgium, may be affected.

The obscene ‘vaccine war’ between capitalist governments will cost many lives. The CWI calls for the nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry, as well as research and development into combatting infectious disease, under democratic workers’ control and management. This would entail a rational plan and pooling of resources to deal with the pandemic emergency – instead of today’s wasteful duplication and competition for profit – to ensure mass production of thoroughly tested and safe covid-19 vaccines to cater to the needs of the populations of Europe and the world.

The EU Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, have come under growing criticism within the EU for its failure to roll out a vaccination programme across all the member states. This follows the decision last year to allow the EU Commission to coordinate the EU’s 27 member-states vaccine programmes, which was used to promote the EU’s single market.

However, prolonged bartering with vaccine producers followed, compounded by poorer EU states’ suspicions that vaccine contracts could be diverted to companies in richer France and Germany. This left the EU significantly lagging behind the US, UK and Israeli governments’ vaccination rollout.

‘Northern Ireland Protocol’

As tensions mounted, the EU Commission stated it would impose emergency border controls on vaccines entering Northern Ireland (‘back door’ to Britain) from the EU. The EU commission, without even consulting the Irish government, said it would invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to impose vaccine export controls on Northern Ireland.

The ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ was agreed after years of painstaking Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK, and sees an ‘open border’ in Ireland. This is partly due to fears that a hard border in Ireland would be a potent symbol of the partition of Ireland, becoming a target for armed dissident republicans and broader nationalist opposition, marking a return to a militarised border and dangerously inflaming sectarian tensions in the North.

Article 16 has a ‘safeguard’ clause to override the Protocol but few commentators would have expected it to be invoked a mere month after the implementation of the Brexit agreement. The EU Commission referred to the risk of “serious societal difficulties” in the EU if it could not deploy enough vaccines to justify invoking Article 16.

The EU Commission’s actions led to a severe backlash from London and Dublin. Irish government ministers, Sinn Fein, and even arch-pro-EU nationalist politicians in the North warned that the Good Friday Agreement and ‘peace’ were being undermined.

Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Party leader and First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, called the EU’s actions a “hostile” act.

The EU Commission’s plans raised hackles internationally, as capitalist governments scramble to obtain adequate vaccinations. Canada, Japan, and South Korea all raised objections to the EU’s requirement that manufacturers get permission before despatching Covid-19 vaccines outside the EU. The International Chamber of Commerce warned that export restrictions could lead to retaliation from other countries and “have a devastating impact on global vaccine supplies”.

Facing such an intense backlash, both within the EU and internationally, the EU Commission did a quick about-turn and republished its vaccine shipment control measures with Article 16 removed. But the Commission warned that it will take measures needed to ensure vaccine supplies are not going to ‘third countries’. Separately, France and Germany have threatened AstraZeneca with legal action over shortages of vaccines.

The DUP and hard-line Brexiteer Tory MPs have used the crisis to push the Boris Johnson government to revoke Article 16 and to demand a renegotiation of the Brexit agreement with the EU.

Arlene Foster and the DUP are under pressure from their support base after having supported Tory Brexit plans only to find their ‘red lines’ crossed in the eventual deal, which has resulted in an ‘east-west border’ created in the Irish Sea, with checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain.

The callousness of the ruling classes

Red tape and bureaucracy have led to delays and shortages of some foodstuffs and goods to Northern Ireland, with conspicuously empty shelves in shops. Graffiti opposing the ‘Irish Sea border’ has appeared in loyalist areas. Loyalist paramilitaries are believed to be behind threats against goods inspectors, leading to a suspension of checks on animal and food products at Larne and Belfast ports. The Brexit deal agreed by the Tory government and bosses’ EU has now added another contentious ‘border’ to further complicate sectarian tensions in the North of Ireland.

The vaccination rows reveal the callousness of the ruling classes across Europe and growing divisions amongst capitalist governments in the EU. Reflecting domestic pressures and frustration with the EU Commission, the German health minister said Germany should use Russian and Chinese covid vaccinations if they get EU approval.

The insanity of the profit system sees capitalist nation-states, within and outside the bosses EU, at each other’s throats. The scale of genuine cooperation, coordination, and pooling of resources, research and the know-how needed to deal effectively with the pandemic is impossible on the basis of the system of capitalist competition.

In contrast, a socialist internationalist approach would see big pharma taken into public ownership and run democratically by working-class people in the interests of people’s health, as part of a socialist reorganisation of society.


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February 2021