Boris Johnson Has Played a Blinder on the EU Vaccine Spat

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A blustering prime minister and a rule-breaking U.K. government present few problems for the European Commission. It has long experience of dealing with troublemakers on the fringes of Europe. A sweetly reasonable Boris Johnson, however, is a more formidable opponent. He should try making nice more often.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is under fire across the continent, especially in her native Germany, for the slow rollout of Europe’s vaccine program. She would have welcomed the distraction of a spat with the Brits this week. But Johnson tried hard not to give her the satisfaction. The first shot in any vaccine war won’t be fired from London.

At first glance it’s hard not to sympathize with Von der Leyen’s complaint that the European Union has exported millions of vaccines to Britain and the rest of the world and received little in return. The vaccine maker AstraZeneca Plc’s continental plants have also hit production problems. Its shots have gone mainly to the U.K. on a first come, first served basis. The Commission president proposed an export ban.

But if you interrupt global supply chains with border controls, you risk self-harm. Even the Turkish-German BioNTech vaccine championed by Brussels is manufactured by Pfizer Inc., an American pharma company, and it requires 286 materials from 86 suppliers in 19 countries. Fatty nanoparticles vital to its production are sourced from the north of England.

Von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, once a bete noire of British euroskeptics, has urged the bloc to avoid “a stupid vaccine war,” adding that threats of an export ban could cause “major reputational damage” to the EU. Having taken the moral high ground at the beginning of the epidemic by pooling its resources, Europe is in danger of looking like a protectionist bully. The Commission’s dilatory deals with Big Pharma, not greedy foreigners, created the shortages.

Johnson for once has zipped his lips. Too often London’s negotiations with Brussels are conducted as a zero-sum game. It was about time to try quiet diplomacy.

The prime minister made polite personal calls to Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron before agreeing to a joint EU-U.K. statement couched in unusually emollient language. Britain and Europe “are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important,” it read. “Given our interdependencies, we are working to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.”

Johnson’s reward for playing nice was a welcome euro-fudge last week. Although an EU summit on Thursday endorsed the Commission’s right to stop vaccine exports in theory, in practice it refused to press the button.

This was a quiet but important victory for the prime minister. After months of being pummeled at home for his faltering pandemic leadership, he has his mojo back. His revived popularity in opinion polls is due entirely to the rare success of Britain’s vaccine program. He realizes that any interruption to its rapid rollout endangers his political health too.

The U.K. is months ahead of laggard continental Europeans in inoculating its citizens and Johnson is taking much of the credit. At Westminster, the opposition Labour Party is lost for a line of attack. Why then jeopardize that success, and the U.K. economy’s reopening, by renewing hostilities with Europe? By some estimates a ban on vaccine exports could delay British inoculations by two months and cut supplies by 20%. Johnson’s noisy libertarian critics within his Conservative Party want lockdown restrictions lifted immediately.

London could indeed retaliate. But what would be the gain? Why not win some goodwill by being generous to the neighbors? The Brits can afford to help Europe once the old and vulnerable have been safeguarded. And if the post-Brexit slogan “Global Britain” means anything, it means keeping the country open for business, placing minimal restrictions on foreign investment and upholding the sanctity of contracts. Within the EU, natural free traders such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium oppose export bans on the same grounds. 

More important, thousands of lives could be lost. Tens of millions of Britons have only received one vaccine shot. To be more certain of safety a second dose is needed. 

Brussels bashing plays well with Johnson’s Tory tribe but now’s not the time. The Commission is doing his job for him. Europe’s threat to impose an export ban came barely a month after Von der Leyen said she’d create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to stop the U.K. from receiving vaccine supplies from Europe. She was forced to reverse her decision within hours. 

Other European leaders have fallen into the trap of vaccine nationalism, too. Led by Macron, they first raised doubts about the efficacy of AstraZeneca’s formula. Then they accused the company of failing to deliver supplies, although by now many of their citizens are refusing to be inoculated with what has been portrayed as an inferior product. It’s hard not to view the criticism as sour grapes, especially as a third wave of Covid infections results in unpopular new lockdowns in the EU. The political repercussions could be enormous.

A nadir was reached last weekend when, tipped off by the Commission, Italian police mounted a huge raid on an AstraZeneca plant where 29 million doses were alleged to be heading for the U.K. It turns out they were destined for Belgium and the developing world. The British press lapped it up, gleefully quoting their German counterparts’ criticism of Von der Leyen. “Dear Brits, we envy you,” was the page one headline from Bild. Wisely, the U.K. prime minister has refused to crow.

Johnson presented a sketchy economic case for leaving the EU during the referendum campaign. His strongest suit was that a freewheeling Britain would prove more nimble in a fast-changing world. He finds vindication in this post-Brexit tale of two vaccine programs. By going it alone from Europe, and early, he secured doses from all the major drug makers.

The implications may be profound. The U.K. has, for instance, accepted the EU’s risk averse regime on growing genetically modified crops. The temptation now will be to make its own rules.

But why rub it in? A confident prime minister need not always play the Brexiter bad guy. The U.K. and the EU have a number of pressing issues to resolve over trade frictions and Northern Ireland. As the larger trading bloc, Brussels has the stronger hand. In a zero-sum game Johnson loses.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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