One of the attractive aspects of the
Let’s bring things up to date, almost five years on. Rutte has just resigned as PM, after a child welfare fraud scandal. Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch business giant, abandoned its plan to move its HQ from the UK to the Netherlands (a plan Rutte tried to engineer by promising to scrap a dividend tax).
In recent days, there have been riots across Dutch cities: mobs have been burning cars and shops, in the worst unrest for half a century. This is a protest against another round of state-mandated social distancing (or
A protest against restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the Covid-19 in Amsterdam, Netherlands
It is all connected with the abject performance of the European Commission’s covid vaccine procurement. In the Netherlands, fewer than 350,000 of its people have had an anti-Covid jab, compared with almost nine million Britons. This is thanks to the UK’s decision last July not to take part in the EU’s programme but to go solo (a decision denounced at the time by the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Ed Davey, as ‘a silly Brexit game’).
It is only when the great majority of a country’s citizenry is vaccinated that ‘herd immunity’ is reached, enabling life to return to normal. At the rate the Dutch (and indeed other EU nations) are immunising, that could be some years away for them. Those Dutch rioters are young people at the end of that slow-moving queue. Their methods are deplorable but their impatience is understandable.
Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, declared that, as a result of Brexit, ‘England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically’
Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron, humiliated by the failure of France’s pharmaceutical flagship, Sanofi, to develop a successful vaccine (it had been backed heavily by the European Commission’s procurement team) has lashed out at the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, describing it as ‘unproven and possibly dangerous for the elderly . . . completely ineffective’.
This is not just a dangerous slur, but bizarre. It is this very vaccine which the European Commission feels it has been deprived of its rightful amount: and because of that it petulantly threatened to block shipments of the Pfizer vaccine going to the UK (such non-EU neighbours as Switzerland and Iceland were not included in the proposed ban).
Macron evokes the Jewish joke about the old lady in a restaurant complaining: ‘the food here is uneatable, and worse, the portions are too small’.
French President Emmanuel Macron has lashed out at the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine
But it would be a mistake to attribute the remarks of Macron and Rutte to a visceral anti-Britishness: neither is remotely Anglophobe. It is more cynical.
The main domestic political challenge to their hold on power has come from their own ‘Eurosceptic’ right. For example, Macron’s most dangerous rival for the Presidency is the nationalist Marine Le Pen. The two leaders see a successful Brexit, therefore, as a mortal threat to their own authority as they fear it would vindicate the arguments of their domestic opponents. Boris Johnson is not a right-wing populist in the style of Le Pen — and Macron knows this. But it suits him to bracket Johnson — and Brexit — thus.
And what of Germany? It was the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who pushed her own health minister into handing over all control of vaccine procurement to the notoriously ponderous European Commission, led by her former colleague, Ursula von der Leyen.
In the way to which we have been accustomed, von der Leyen was not elected to the presidency of the Commission, but emerged from a peculiarly opaque form of behind-the-scenes horse-trading. And (to which we have also become accustomed), she had ‘failed upwards’: her last job as an elected politician had been at the German defence ministry, where one scandal after another turned her into something of a byword for incompetence (though with a very plausible manner).
It was the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who pushed her own health minister into handing over all control of vaccine procurement to the notoriously ponderous European Commission, led by her former colleague, Ursula von der Leyen (pictured)
There was a perfectly understandable reason for Merkel’s pushing this plan. Germany had become resented within the EU (more so than usual, that is) when, at the time Northern Italy became overwhelmed by the coronavirus, Berlin blocked its own companies from exporting personal protection equipment to its European neighbours.
Not wanting any repeat, Merkel handed over all vaccine negotiations and procurement to Brussels, with the idea that each member state would have equal access, proportionate to population.
Yet the idea that smaller nations could not do such deals by themselves has been exposed as condescending by one country which, if it were counted among European states, would rank 20th by population and in terms of the size of its economy would sit next to the Republic of Ireland. Yes, little, independent Israel has led the world in vaccine purchase and roll-out.
As the scale of the European Commission’s ineffectiveness in this matter of life and death has become more evident, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has furiously broken with EU solidarity, and made orders for the Russian Sputnik vaccine, declaring: ‘We will not wait for bungling Eurocrats to dish out doses while Hungarians are dying.’
Not wanting any repeat, German Chancellor Angela Merkel handed over all vaccine negotiations and procurement to Brussels
Doubtless the demagogic Hungarian leader’s outburst also owed much to the discovery that Berlin, once it realised how badly the Commission had under-ordered from Pfizer, had later purchased much more of the product — outside the EU scheme.
But the prize for the most contemptible behaviour in this whole episode must go to the health spokesman for the European People’s Party, the centre-right grouping in the European parliament. This is Peter Liese, like Ursula von der Leyen a doctor by training, and also, like her, a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU.
When the UK’s Medical and Healthcare Regulatory Agency gave approval for the use of the Pfizer vaccine at the beginning of December (while the European Medicines Agency was way off the pace), Dr Liese criticised the British regulator: ‘I consider this decision to be problematic and recommend that EU member states do not repeat the process in the same way . . . A few weeks [more] of thorough examination by the European Medicines Agency is better than hasty emergency marketing authorisation of a vaccine.’
Yet, as the head of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot, told a group of European journalists last week, it was because the UK had moved more quickly that our own factories had — even before the vaccine was licensed — ironed out the problems in what is far from a straightforward process.
European factories are still struggling to get it right, in part because they were months behind on the production learning curve. According to Soriot, this was why his firm was failing to meet the orders it had promised to the EU.
And what was Dr Liese’s reaction? He raged: ‘The only consequence can be immediately stopping the export of the vaccines . . . the company [AstraZeneca] and the UK had better think twice . . . it’s time we begin to show our weapons.’
Just days later, Ursula von der Leyen did precisely as her CDU colleague and co-national asked. Not only that: without even informing the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin, she broke the month-old protocol between the EU and the UK, by declaring, in effect, a vaccine border between the North and South of Ireland.
It was an act of staggering arrogance, born of panic. Within hours, following calls from the Irish and British heads of government, she backtracked humiliatingly.
This whole episode, revealing the unelected European Commission to be not just arrogant but vicious in its self-defence, like a dangerous dog, has done more for the cause of Brexit than anything Boris Johnson could achieve.
I have been struck by the number of longstanding British (and European) critics of Britain’s decision to leave the EU who, over the past few days, have changed their minds. Perhaps it is the European Commission, and not our own centuries-old parliamentary system, whose political collapse is in the stars.
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