AstraZeneca and the EU

Where do we start with this one?

At first I thought the issues around the row between the EU and AstraZeneca over vaccines which a reluctant Britain has been dragged into was a classic case of sound and fury, and as so often happens, the hardline Brexiteers and hardline Europhiles both interpreting and misinterpreting the same set of facts to retrospectively fit the positions they took in 2016 and have held on to like grim death ever since.

But it rapidly became clear that this is not the case. 

I will try to moderate my language in this post because I still think the advice from Alistair Burt which I quoted on my blog within the last 48 hours, urging caution on all sides and warning against harsh words, saying "learn fast and say less" was good advice.

For a start, it is increasingly clear that the EU's response has utterly horrified not just many moderate Remainers but a good chunk of those quite strong Remain supporters whose attitudes are not completely immune to evidence (and for the avoidance of doubt, there are people on both sides of the Brexit divide who are utterly proof against having their minds changed by the strongest evidence and others on both sides who are not.)

One of the most powerful early shots against the EU position came in a twitter thread from Robert Peston, former BBC Economics editor and now the Political editor of ITV, who I don't think many people would accuse of pro-Leave bias. 

Peston explained that the UK not only got their orders in for vaccines three months ahead of the European Commission but used those three months to sort out the supply chain issues in advance. Peston  quoted a "pro-EU source" at AZ as saying "I understand Brexit better now." Today he suggested that the EU strategy on the subject of vaccinations could be seen as an act of self harm.

Robert Peston's source is far from the only one who backed Remain but think the EU has got their response to the vaccination issue dead wrong. One member of my family who voted Remain asked me this evening "Have you seen that the EU have gone completely mad?"

Similarly The Economist magazine, which always tries to give both sides of any given story but very much came down on the Remain side in 2016 has published slightly different wordings of their report on the issue for different audiences here and here, but both essentially taking the view that for the EU to block exports of vaccines "would be a grave error."

Owen Jones wasn't impressed:

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has weighted in this evening, tweeting that "Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others."

There are of course both right and wrong reasons to criticise the EU.

I totally understand why the EU Commission and member states are extremely upset that AstraZeneca are having trouble meeting  their promised schedule for delivery of vaccines for which the EU paid up front. 

I do not blame the EU in the slightest for pushing back when AZ informed them that they might only be able to supply 40% of the number of doses in the first quarter of 2021 which the EU had ordered and expected.

I don't even blame the EU for asking whether it might be possible to make up some of the shortfall with supplies from Britain (and, contrary to one of the falsehoods being put out by those who are trying to pretend that the supply problems in the EU are somehow Britain's fault, the UK government hasn't threatened to block any export of vaccines to our European neighbours - I read that "Downing Street declined to rule out vaccines being sent to the EU.")

Where I do blame the EU is, 

  • First, that their bureaucratic procedures added three months to the process of signing the contract for AZ vaccines compared with when Britain signed and when several member states including France and Germany wanted to sign up, leaving less time to sort out the supply chain issues, and
  • Second, some Commission officials and continental politicians started talking the language of trade wars and threatening to block exports of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, to which Britain has every bit as much right as the EU has to the AZ vaccine for exactly the same reasons, as an opening move in the negotiations, not a last resort.

A vaccine war is very much against everyone's interests - especially those of the patients - and all sides need to work hard to avoid it.

And focus on sorting out the supply chain issues so that everyone can have enough vaccines.

I was quite surprised when reflecting on this issue to realise that I cannot remember a single instance between the 2016 referendum and this week when any of  literally hundreds of attempts by hardliners on both sides to persuade me to shift my position on Brexit made me seriously consider doing so. 

The Brexit side never once managed to make me wonder if I was wrong to vote Remain. The Remain hardliners never once managed to make me wonder if I was wrong to think that the result of the referendum must be respected and implemented.

I think the main reason for that is that virtually all those attempts, from both sides, were so arrogant and aggressive in their tone that they usually pushed me in exactly the opposite direction.

The Brexiteers still have not succeeded in making me wonder whether I was wrong to vote Remain. But this week, the EU did.


I am pleased to see that a few minutes ago, just after I posted this, the EU commission president tweeted

"Constructive talks with Prime Minister @BorisJohnson tonight. 

We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities."


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