The demands of the news cycle are notorious. But we rely on senior figures in government, whether elected or unelected, not to succumb to their addiction for short-term approbation and to get things right. The euro-debacle over Article 16 of the Irish Protocol was a case in point.
The EU Commission is not elected. It is supposed to be collegiate. It is supposed to act in the collective interests of the union and its member states. But it put its own image before its duty to act carefully and with consideration. Why?
Having persuaded the member states to act collectively in relation to the purchase of vaccines, a policy that was on the face of it good for Ireland and other smaller states, the Commission took on executive responsibility for what are, in effect, life and death issues for EU citizens and massive economic consequences for the entire union.
This was an opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of EU action. The largest snouts were not going to devour the contents of the vaccine trough. It all seemed good and so communautaire.
The union is not entirely to blame for the lamentably slow progress in vaccinating the peoples of one of the largest world’s and wealthiest and most sophisticated economic blocs. Slow progress in France and Germany (and in Ireland) cannot be laid exclusively at the door of the Berlaymont.
The UK with a massive mortality rate and a wholly dysfunctional political response seems finally to have grasped more than the bureaucrats of the member states that the Covid pandemic is truly an emergency in every sense. Getting the vaccine and getting it out to the people demands emergency measures including mass mobilisation of the armed forces, the health services, and community facilities.
The Commission, for its part, concluded a paper deal with Astra Zeneca of impressive length and detail. It bears reading. Astra Zeneca did warrant to the Commission in writing that it had no prior obligations that would prevent it from discharging its contractual liabilities. But the contract did not deal with allocation of vaccine as between the company’s customers or non-EU markets.
Then it informed the Commission of production difficulties that would throw out all the plans for member state vaccination programmes, while the UK forged ahead.
The Commission became the lightning rod in a storm of political anger and anxiety. Panicked by its exposed position, the Commission began to throw shapes. It would teach Astra Zeneca (and by extension the UK) that the EU meant business. What was sold as a ban on exporting vaccine to the UK and elsewhere rapidly mutated (like a virus) into a mere monitoring measure. But it had to seem that the Commission was acting decisively. That was the political imperative.
That is the background to the Article 16 debacle. Nobody has yet put up his or her hand to accept personal responsibility for attempting to invoke Article 16. Did anyone seriously think that Irish customs would check every truck crossing the border to ensure that a fiendishly clever Astra Zeneca were not going to send vaccine produced on the continent to be smuggled into Britain by the Irish back door?
If that was not the concern of those who drafted the Regulation, what was? What kind of impetuous foot-stamping zeal can otherwise explain the debacle.
This was no mere clerical error. Anyone who actually read Article 16 and the related Annexe 7 of the Protocol would have realised that the suggested regulation was as illegal as it was politically cack-handed. It was not an “oversight” or a mere “error”, to use the language employed by emollient Irish ministers.
It was an intended and monumentally wrong-minded dangerous ploy designed to create the impression that the Commission was pulling no punches in the vaccine shortage crisis.
The problem for the Commission now is to explain how the decision-making process of the EU could be hi-jacked by a small number of utterly incompetent individuals at senior level to do such a damaging thing. Who were they? Should we trust them in future?
If the Commission is collegiate, how come none of the cabinets of the other Commissioners did not notice? Had they all taken an early week-end on Friday last? Were all those outside the drafting process asleep at the wheel? Which Commissioner, if any, actually knew what was in the regulation?
Confidence has to be restored by a modicum of transparency and accountability. Whose idea was the Article 16 deployment? Who signed off on it? What went so wrong that it was not detected?
Hopefully, it will not permanently undermine the Irish protocol. But it played straight into the hands of those who have contempt for the EU and the Good Friday Agreement in equal measure.