David Gauke: Free trade on vaccines. The EU may have made threats, but it is the US that has actually blocked exports.

24 Apr

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

One of the extraordinary attributes of the short-lived European Super League was that for almost everyone, there was something to hate. If you worry that the system is rigged in favour of the rich, driven by greed and the interests of the common man are ignored, this was a proposal to drive you to the barricades. If you are a believer in the importance of competition, openness and the need for creative destruction, this looked like a protectionist cartel. Socialists saw it as the unacceptable face of capitalism, capitalists saw it as feudal. Brexiteers argued that demonstrated an unaccountable elite conspiring against the national leagues; Remainers saw it as an attempt to “take back control” without thinking through all the consequences.

Like everyone else, I strongly disliked the plan and was relieved when it failed. Business might like certainty and predictability but sport thrives on the opposite. An attempt to insulate sporting teams from the consequences of failure undermines the excitement necessary to engage fans. Imagine life as an Arsenal or Tottenham supporter – there would never be much to play for.

And for those of us who support clubs outside the Big 6, the plan would have taken away all hope of ever making it to the top. I was very fortunate to grow up living the dream as an Ipswich supporter in the Bobby Robson years as a small town club regularly competed for the League Championship and won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup (I can happily recite the teams for both triumphs and, at a push, Alf Ramsey’s Championship winning team from ten years before my birth). That was an era when there was greater mobility in football but Leicester City’s triumph of 2015/6 shows that even recently dreams can come true.

The motivation behind the ESL seemed to be to replicate the models used for US sports with a secure franchise that provides financial security to the owners. It is also the case that within the US model there is an egalitarian draft system, as well as salary caps and redistribution of profits among the teams. To some extent, it looks more like a medieval guild – once in, you are heavily protected but you have to be on the inside.

I cannot say it appeals as a system much to me but – to the extent that it works – I suspect it only works because it applies to sports that are not played at a serious level outside of the US, so there is no international competition. Try setting up a system that so favours the owners with football by establishing a salary cap and the star players will end up going elsewhere. For all these reasons, I think the proposals were ill-considered.

The Government, of course, weighed in, made a number of threats and announced a review by the well-regarded Tracey Crouch. Establishing a review into the governance of the game seems entirely reasonable in the circumstances, although striking a balance between giving the fans a greater say and still ensuring that the Premier League clubs have deep enough pockets to attract the best players and build or maintain the best stadia may not be straightforward. We shouldn’t allow nostalgia to convince us that the past was better than the present (other than for Ipswich Town fans, obviously).

This was all good politics in demonstrating that the Government was on the side of the people. (I also think Boris Johnson making it clear that he is not a football fan was rather astute; football fans would rather politicians were honest about not being a fan rather than insincerely professing a love for a team).

Even so, I am uneasy about threats to impose a windfall tax or refuse to grant visas to the breakaway clubs. “You might not be breaking any laws, but do as we say or we will confiscate your assets” may have been a bluff, but even unpopular businesses are entitled to expect their property rights should not be threatened by the use of the tax system in a draconian or arbitrary way.

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I wrote here four weeks’ ago about how the criticisms of the UK Government’s approach as being “vaccine nationalism” was unmerited, threats to block EU vaccine exports were indefensible and that it wasn’t the UK’s fault that the EU had got its procurement wrong.

Some pro-EU commentators argue that neither the UK nor the US have exported much by way of vaccines, therefore both are guilty of vaccine nationalism, whereas the EU has exported lots. This is true but I still think it is missing the point.

What is the system that is most likely to produce the greatest number of vaccines? I would argue it is a system whereby if countries invest in developing vaccines, they are likely to see the benefits of that investment and that complex and cross-border supply chains can operate in confidence that such activity will not be impeded. In other words, a system that respects property rights will produce more vaccines.

I stand by my criticisms of the EU, but there are a couple of points to add. First, in recent weeks the EU is now making much better progress in getting jabs into arms – the largest EU countries have vaccination rates similar to ours during February and March. We are ahead of them but only by a few weeks.

Second, when it comes to getting in the way of free trade on vaccines, the European Commission may have made threats, but it is the US that has actually blocked exports and is sitting on millions of doses of AZ that it looks unlikely to use.

Had President Trump been re-elected, we would be hearing much more about it. President Biden should allow AZ to export the US produced doses to those who bought them. As for those doses bought by the US Government, if the US is not going to use them, send them to India.

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So the Government has abandoned plans to implement Johnny Mercer’s proposals to prevent enquiries into war crimes in Northern Ireland allegedly committed by army veterans.

The incident reminded me of my time in Government when the issue was causing a great deal of disquiet. At PMQs, Theresa May regularly faced a torrid time from Conservative backbenchers. Iain Duncan Smith implied that she was “abandoning veterans” and an irate Mark Francois quoted a Chelsea Pensioner who said that the Government was “pandering to Sinn Féin/IRA, while throwing veterans like me to the wolves”.

No one in Government wanted to see army veterans hauled through the courts but the subject was, to put it mildly, complex and the then Prime Minister didn’t want to promise something undeliverable. After all, there are issues with putting anyone above the law for committing torture as well as potentially risking the whole Northern Ireland settlement.

Two years later, the Government ends up in a similar position to that of May and accepts that a comprehensive carve-out for Northern Ireland veterans as sought by Mercer is undeliverable. He resigns but as yet there seems to be little outrage from others who demanded comprehensive protections for veterans from one Prime Minister and who then believed they were promised such protections.

David Gauke: I’m a convinced Remainer – but believe nonetheless that the EU has mishandled its vaccine policy

27 Mar

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

At Thursday’s virtual European Council meeting, the EU stepped back from imposing a vaccine export ban. This is just as well.

At a time when all nations face the same enemy and seek to apply the same solution, the case for international co-operation is overwhelming. We all know that maximising the production and take-up of the vaccines is the way out of the Covid crisis, and we all know that using global supply chains should be the swiftest way of producing the vaccines we need. Talk of export bans makes this task harder.

For some on the Remain side of the Brexit debate, there is an instinctive desire to defend the EU and cast the UK as vaccine nationalists or selfish panic-buyers and AstraZeneca as contract-breakers, arbitrarily favouring one customer over another.

It is, however, an unconvincing case. In contrast, had the EU proceeded to block vaccine exports to the UK, its behaviour would have been indefensible.

If one believes in open markets, removing trade barriers, building up trust between trading partners and honouring contractual obligations, one should be prepared to be critical of EU behaviour contrary to those values, regardless of where one stood on the subject of Brexit. I am sure many Leave voters who share these values must, from time to time, hold similar views about some of the actions taken by the UK Government.

Some have defended the proposed export ban stating that others are doing it. It is not much of a defence, but it is true to say that the US – under both Presidents Trump and Biden – has used legislation to prevent vaccines manufactured in the US from being exported. The Indian Government has also stepped in to prevent the export of doses. On the charge of vaccine nationalism, the US and India are guilty and the EU, as yet, is innocent.

The charge that the UK has a de facto export ban is, however, nonsense. There is a clear distinction between an entity not being provided with vaccines because the export has been blocked by government action, and an entity not being provided with vaccines because it has no right to it because they have already been acquired by someone else.

Underlying the EU case is a confusion between the entity producing the vaccines and the country in which the vaccines are produced. Some EU leaders have argued that it is not right that a large proportion of ‘EU vaccines’ have been ‘exported by the EU’. As the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, pointed out earlier this week ‘these are not European Union vaccines… these are vaccines paid for by other countries that are manufactured in Europe.’

Is it right for the EU to characterise AZ as the villains of the piece for failing to fulfil its contractual obligations? When this row first blew up in January, the Commission argued that once the procurement contract was published, it would be clear that AZ was in breach.

The contract was published and it established no such thing. Without delving too far into the complexities of contract law, if AZ were failing to allocate vaccine doses to the EU in accordance with its contractual obligations, it would be open to the EU to seek legal remedy. Given that the EU is not doing this suggests that the Commission has little confidence in its legal position that AZ is in breach of its contractual obligations.

Did AZ agree better terms for the UK than for the EU? This may well be the case, and would be consistent with the Commission’s lack of confidence in its legal position. Does this mean that the UK engaged in sharp practice in the deal it got? No. First, competently negotiating a contract is no sin. Second, the UK – and the UK taxpayer – played an important role in developing the vaccine, first with Oxford University and then with AZ. This engagement enabled AZ to ramp up its production following an agreement signed in May 2020, months before the AZ/EU deal. This early ramping up of production, by the way, has probably helped not hindered the EU.

There is a comparison to be drawn with Germany and BionTech. Germany supported BionTech, which developed the vaccine that is being manufactured by Pfizer. In contrast to the UK and AZ, Germany did not nail down priority supply either for itself or for the EU.

As a consequence, many Pfizer doses are manufactured in a country that refuses to export to the EU or is exported from the EU to those who have placed an order. It would have been perfectly reasonable for Germany (or the EU) to say “we’re funding the research and development and agree to purchase the first X million doses”. But neither Germany nor the EU chose to do so. Again, that is not the UK’s fault.

The botched procurement by the EU is the route of many of the problems. The Commission was focused on the wrong issues in the circumstances, worried about the price and liability in the event of vaccines causing harm. Speed mattered and gambling large sums of money at an early stage was the right thing to do, as the UK demonstrated. The Commission, perhaps because it does not have its own tax base on which to call, was more hesitant.

Many a commentator has speculated that, had the UK still been part of the EU, we would now be stuck in the EU slow lane. However, it is inconceivable that a UK Government seized of the need to make rapid progress on this front would have surrendered control over the vaccine programme.

In all likelihood, an alliance of the UK and Germany would have ensured member states retained control, resulting in greater urgency in vaccine procurement. As members of the EU, we were a consistent voice of scepticism towards greater integration and, in this particular matter, our absence has been to the EU’s detriment.

Where does that leave us? The EU is well behind the UK in the vaccine rollout, it does not appear to have a legal remedy against AZ (presumably because AZ is fulfilling its ‘best endeavours’ contractual obligations) but the relationship between the EU and AZ remains toxic. The immediate threat of an export ban has dissipated but EU politicians are under immense political pressure. Until this pressure eases, the risk of a foolish intervention by the EU remains.

This incident also emphasises that our relationship with the EU matters. On this occasion, the European Commission has behaved very badly in the same way that I think the UK has behaved very badly over the Northern Ireland Protocol. But we must do more than just apportion blame. We have to make this relationship work because, if we do not, both sides have the capacity to do the other side a lot of harm. More often than not, the smaller party – in this case, the UK – will come off worse.

On both moral and legal grounds, the UK is in a strong position in the vaccine dispute. But the wise approach would be to reduce tensions. The national interest would be served by making some contribution to helping them out, even if the Commission doesn’t really deserve it.

Iain Dale: People will die as a result of the EU’s Covid games. But don’t expect the media to criticise Saint Macron.

19 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Another day, another attack from the EU on Britain and/or AstraZeneca (AZ).

It’s becoming a very unfortunate pattern. Once you can forgive, twice you can put down to coincidence. Three times and you start to wonder if there’s an agenda. And so on.

This started many weeks ago, when it became clear that the UK had forged ahead in its vaccine rollout, unlike the EU, whose bureaucracy and incompetence led to it being two to three months behind.

As this reality dawned, it seemed the only way it could cover its back was to accuse the UK of vaccine nationalism. President Macron of France even went so far as to cast doubt on the safety of the AZ vaccine with absolutely no proof whatsoever. The German newspaper Handelsblatt followed suit.

We should remember that Macron is president of a country where vaccine scepticism is already rife. It was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever heard come out of a so-called statesman’s mouth. If Trump had said it, Europe’s media would have been up in arms. Not so much with the sainted Macron.

A few weeks later Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, erroneously, and totally without any foundation, claimed that Britain had imposed an export ban on vaccines or vaccine contents. No such ban had been imposed and the European Commission was forced to admit it.

Ursula von der Leyen then proceeded to threaten an export ban to the UK, which again, had to be withdrawn. She did though approve a decision by the Italian government to ban the export of 250,000 vaccine jabs from AZ to Australia, on the basis that they were needed in the EU. Yet all we hear is that there are hundreds of thousands of AZ vaccines sitting in fridges and there is no shortage whatsoever.

And then 17 European countries – not all of them EU members – decided to suspend AZ vaccines on the basis that there were reports of people suffering blood clots after having had the vaccine. Almost immediately we found out that there had been 28 cases per million after 17 million doses had been administered.

Strangely, however, there was no ban on the Pfizer vaccine, given that it has had 22 cases. I wonder why that would be…

While it’s always right to be cautious and to analyse the “yellow cards” which all vaccines experience, the effect of this suspension of rollout has yet again undermined public confidence in the AZ vaccine. So why have these countries done it, given they must have known the consequence?

The head of the Italian medicines regulator has been highly critical of the decision and says it was done for “political reasons”. Scandalous.

There is another explanation. Big pharma companies have incredibly powerful lobbying operations, both in Brussels and in national capitals. The AZ vaccine is sold at cost, whereas all the other companies’ vaccines are far more expensive and are produced with varying, but large, profit margins. It’s in their interests to trash the AZ vaccine. It costs between £1 and £2 per dose, compared to the £13-£20 for the Pfizer offering. Others are a bit cheaper but way more than AZ. Follow the money.

As I write, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have both confirmed the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the damage is done. Even in this country there are reports of people with pre-booked appointments not showing up for their turn. It’s a stark thing to say, but the constant running down of the AZ vaccine by European leaders is having an effect here. People will die as a result.

And on Wednesday the hapless von der Leyen returned to the fray and went back on her promise of a few weeks ago and directly threatened the UK with an export ban. Again, scandalous. She appears not to understand Contract Law. Originally she accused AZ of going back on its contractual obligations. She raided their offices in Belgium. The truth was that the contract was watertight. If it hadn’t been, no doubt there would have been an immediate law suit emanating from the Berlaymont.

This sabre rattling is all about arse covering and skin saving. It’s a lame attempt to portray Britain as the bad cop. European people can see through this. They look at the successful rollout of the vaccine in Britain and compare it to the lamentable efforts of the EU, and they can see quite easily how it has happened.

The reaction of the British government to these outrageous threats from Brussels has been commendably muted. It’s more with sorrow rather than anger. But these are hostile acts, and it is a sign that we can expect more of the same. Britain totally holds the moral high ground here, and it will be interesting to see how this can be turned to our diplomatic advantage.

One thing is for sure: I have lost count of the number of people on social media who were devout Remainers, who now say they regret their Remain votes. I imagine there are plenty of people all over Europe who are now saying that the Brits knew what they were doing and their faith in the EU has been diminished as a result. Who knows what the long-term consequences of this will be for the EU.

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Yesterday my book The Prime Ministers won the Parliamentary Book of the Year by a No Parliamentarian. I think anyone who has ever won an award can imagine how I felt when I heard the news. There’s no panel who chooses this ward in the usual Buggins Turn way, the awards are voted on by MPs and Peers themselves, which makes it even more special.

The book contains 55 essays on each of our 55 PMs, and it’s being announced today that my next book will be in a similar format and look at the 46 US Presidents. That will be followed up in 2023 by one on our Kings and Queens.

Sammy Wilson: The Northern Ireland Protocol needs to be replaced, not repaired

8 Feb

Sammy Wilson is the Democratic Unionist MP for East Antrim, and is Director of the Centre for Brexit Policy.

As the full implications of the Northern Ireland protocol begin to be manifested, it is clear that this arrangement, which was designed solely to protect the EU’s Single Market, has destroyed the UK’s internal market.

It is damaging Northern Ireland businesses, denies tens of thousands of Northern Ireland consumers the ability to purchase all manner of goods from suppliers in Great Britain, has resulted in the rigorous applications of petty EU rules, and has caused tensions which threaten to spill over into violence on Northern Ireland’s streets.

All of this was totally predictable. The Nothern Ireland protocol contains 70 pages of lists of EU directives and regulations which have to apply to Northern Ireland.  These rules require customs declarations are for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and cover everything from container loads of food destined for supermarkets to items worth a few pounds ordered over the internet from Amazon for personal use. Health inspections, certificates and border checks have added to time delays and increased costs.

Petty rule enforcement means that goods carried on wooden pallets which don’t meet EU standards, but that are perfectly safe and legal across the UK, are being turned away. Machinery being brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain is refused entry if there is any soil residue on it. Indeed, since January 1st, British soil is now deemed  a danger to the safety of EU horticulture and therefore plants cannot be brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain in case Northern Ireland becomes the Ho Chi Minh trail for infiltrating the EU market with horticulture devastation.

And all of this is occurring while we are still in the period of grace – whereby the most damaging requirements of the Protocol are not being enforced. So the potential for further economic damage and constitutional destruction hasn’t even begun to be felt. Under the protocol, Northern Ireland is required to follow thousands of EU rules from the past, and all future EU Single Market rules – into which no one in Northern Ireland will have any input. Adherence will be enforceable through the European Court of Justice.

Despite the clear damage that the Protocol is doing and will do to the Northern Ireland economy, and the place of Northern Ireland within the UK, there are those who demand its full implementation because it is an internationally legally binding  agreement.

Of course, the EU has now shown that it don’t see the Protocol in that way. In order to escape the wrath of citizens across the EU who are angry at the bungling ineptitude of the EU commission over the purchase and distribution of Covid vaccines, the EU was prepared to scrap the most important objective of the Protocol, and set up checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact that it swiftly withdrew this proposal after outrage was expressed by the Irish government is neither here nor there. They didn’t even apologise – and have reserved the right to do the same again if they believe it is necessary.

Now is the time to replace this discredited agreement. The answer is not further grace periods as Michael Gove has suggested: after all, the damage being done at present is occurring during a grace period. The answer is not to beg the EU for some minor derogations. A workable alternative is needed.

The Mutual Enforcement proposal put forward by the Centre for Brexit Policy meets the EU demand for protection of its Single Market while protecting Northern Ireland from having to be included in that market – thus avoiding the constitutional and economic damage which this does.

Put simply Northern Ireland firms exporting into the EU would be required to meet all EU standards and pay any EU taxes on the goods which they export. The export declarations which they make would have to show that they were doing so, and would be confirmed by regulatory bodies in Northern Ireland.

Ann exporters that do not comply can then be pursued on both sides of the border. The same arrangements would be in place in the Republic of Ireland. There is no need for border posts, which can be easily avoided anyway. A mutual enforcement structure implies constant enforcement on both sides of the border, so the EU would benefit from the protection of the UK enforcement authorities as well as its own.

The solution is not to tinker with this flawed and ruinous agreement. Instead, it needs replacing with a workable alternative.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson the statesman is working for open borders by sea and land

3 Feb

“Be the Unionist we need you to be,” Ian Paisley (DUP, Antrim North) exhorted the Prime Minister via video link.

Paisley lamented that “the Protocol has betrayed us and made us feel like foreigners in our own country”.

He added that “tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard” and asked the Prime Minister: “Will he be a man of his word?”

Boris Johnson has in the past assured anyone who expressed worry about a border down the Irish Sea that there would be no such border.

Today he declared: “We will do everything we need to do to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

He had earlier remarked, in response to a question from Claire Hanna (SDLP, Belfast South), “it was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the peace process, by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland”.

In response to a question from Stephen Farry (Alliance, North Down) Johnson took the chance to reiterate that the EU’s behaviour was “most unfortunate”.

But for Johnson, the EU’s behaviour was far from unfortunate. He can now be the statesman who offers to work with everyone of goodwill to get rid of these wretched borders.

It is in this sense that his earlier statements on the subject are to be understood: he was expressing an admirable aspiration, not an accomplished fact; promising he would sort out the Irish Sea problem, not that he had already sorted it out.

How he enjoys being the constructive, enlightened statesman, who deprecates the recklessness of the European Commission.

But he also enjoys riling Sir Keir Starmer, to whom he attributed various statements which had the Labour leader protesting: “Complete nonsense. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a pre-prepared gag.”

“May I advise him to consult YouTube,” Johnson replied in his most statesmanlike manner.

Johnson took the chance to accuse Sir Keir of having wanted Britain to stay in the European Medicines Agency, to which the Labour leader angrily replied: “The Prime Minister knows I’ve never said that, from this Despatch Box or anywhere else, but the truth escapes him.”

Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh and Wickford) rose on a point of order immediately after PMQs to point out that on 21st January 2017 Sir Keir had asked in the Commons why we would ever want to leave the European Medicines Agency.

An ambush, and a successful one. Supporters of the British nation suddenly have the upper hand, while those who supported the EU sound out of date; loyal to an ancien régime which cannot be revived; able only, once the lockdown comes to an end, to hold secret dinner parties in north London at which they raise a glass to the Queen over the water, Ursula von der Leyen.

Vaccine strategies in Europe. France battles anti-vaxxers, while Merkel is blamed for procurement failures.

7 Jan

With the Government under enormous pressure to accelerate its vaccine programme, it’s easy to believe that the UK is unique in the difficulties it faces in upscaling quickly. 

But across Europe, and indeed the world, many others are facing similar operational challenges, from delays in manufacturing, to questions over where to issue vaccines, to whether people will have a jab in the first place.

One country that has had particular difficulties is France, which delivered just 516 vaccines in the first week of their availability, and only 7,000 by late Tuesday (since the started on December 27). Emmanuel Macron has apparently likened the pace of the vaccine roll out to a “family stroll”, “not worthy of the moment or the French”.

So what’s the hold up? The consensus seems to be that bureaucratic barriers have stopped France from progressing more quickly, starting when the government issued 45 pages of guidance for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. 

Procedures at nursing homes, in particular, have been criticised for taking too long, as they often involve managers having to obtain consent from residents’ personal doctors, who have to sign off the vaccine at least five days before it’s given. France’s health minister has promised to speed up these processes, as well as saying that 500 to 600 vaccination centres will be set up by the end of January.

Even if France is able to overcome these bureaucratic challenges, it’s worth pointing out that it could face more of a challenge with anti-vaxxers. A poll by Ipsos Global Advisor, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, shows that only 40 per cent of French people want the vaccine, compared to 77 per cent in Britain, so the Government will have its work cut out trying to get them on board.

One of the ways France plans to do this is via an online platform, which will allow people to register for their jab. No doubt ministers hope this will cut out some of the red tape, as well as countering some of the scepticism.

Another country that is fighting hard to speed up vaccine roll out is Germany, albeit it has moved much faster than France, with 239,000 people receiving a vaccine starting on December 27. Its government has been accused of not obtaining enough vaccines, and of being too slow at moving forward with the inoculation campaign.

Angela Merkel has been attacked in particular for not having the right strategy in place. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats finance minister, presented her with a four-page list of questions about her handling of vaccine management, in what was described as “more like a committee of inquiry”. According to one newspaper, Merkel blocked an initiative by German, Italian, French and Dutch ministers to order more vaccines. After her intervention, they agreed to drop their plan and hand over control to the European Commission.

There are signs that Germany will speed up its vaccine process; it expects to receive over 5.3 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by mid-February according to its health minister, and BioNTech is also said to soon open a production site in Marburg. 

It is also reported to be considering the strategy now being used by the UK, which involves administering as many doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech shot as possible, with second doses planned for 11 or 12 weeks’ time, rather than the originally planned three week window.

Given Germany’s previous successful handling of Coronavirus testing, it could be the case that it moves forward very quickly vaccines – but much of its issues have been attributed to the EU’s vaccination strategy. Even Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s co-founder and Chief Medical Officer, has criticised its strategy, telling one magazine the EU had assumed there would be “a basket of different suppliers… But then at some point it became clear that many would be unable to deliver so quickly” and by “that time it was too late to make up for under-ordering.”

To add to tensions in the EU, Karl Lauterbach from the Social Democratic Party recently accused the French government from preventing it from buying more Pfizer-BioNTech jabs, so that French competitor Sanofi would have an advantage, whose vaccine is still in development.

The French Deputy Minister for European Affairs has called the accusations “unacceptable and false”, adding that Europe “played as a team”. But clearly the vaccine procurement programme has raised questions over that idea.

Johnson’s Brexit journalism and Brexit politics are of a piece: in both he thrives by infuriating the Establishment

16 Dec

If one wishes to understand Boris Johnson’s performance in the Brexit negotiations, it is worth studying his performance as a journalist.

Nobody, so far as I know, has yet done this. HIs critics have trawled his articles in search of proof that he is a racist and a liar, but were already determined to condemn him, so were in no condition to learn anything they did not already believe.

Johnson has been writing about the European Union since 1989, when Max Hastings, in a stroke of genius, sent him as The Daily Telegraph‘s correspondent to Brussels.

Soon Johnson’s office was adorned with herograms from Hastings, in recognition of the wonderfully readable and widely noticed copy supplied by his protégé.

While other correspondents still treated the EU with a degree of respect, Johnson set out to ridicule the Brussels bureaucracy, and to dramatise the mortal threat which the Commission’s expansionist zeal posed to the British way of life, symbolised by changes in the rules governing crisps and sausages.

His readers enjoyed these reports enormously, but some of his rival correspondents did not. They accused him of making things up.

He reported (as I noted in my biography of him, Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister) that the Berlaymont building was going to be blown up, in order to get rid of the asbestos with which it was infected. The editor of The European saw this story and wished to arrange for one of its readers to push the plunger on the detonator, but this proved impossible, for there was to be no detonation.

The Berlaymont is standing to this day, its asbestos-ridden cladding replaced by what looks like an entirely new building, in which Ursula von der Leyen last week entertained Johnson to dinner.

Stories like this continue to annoy The New York Times, and other journals which attach the highest importance to checking the facts.

They are not mollified, if anything are made still angrier, by the observation that Johnson approached Brussels in the manner of a dramatist, not a literalist, the urge to entertain taking precedence over mere facts.

When a brilliant caricaturist tells the truth by exaggerating somebody’s features, nobody objects, but the same latitude is not extended to reporters, even though the presentation of their work – the decision about which story to put on the front page, with a dramatic headline – can seldom be said to be free from hyperbole.

The row about Johnson’s cavalier attitude to facts obscured several other aspects of his work. One was that he was onto something: the Commission really was trying to expand its powers at the expense of the member states.

A second feature was his respect for the ruthlessness with which Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, and his henchman, Pascal Lamy, were driving forward the process of European integration, which they believed to be in the French national interest, for it was a way of controlling Germany:

“With his virtually shaven head and parade-ground manner, Lamy runs the upper echelons of the Commission like a Saharan camp of the French Foreign Legion.”

British officials, with “their shy grins and corrugated-soled shoes”, were, Johnson lamented, “no match for the intellectual brutality of Lamy and his stooges”.

Another aspect of his coverage was harder to spot, for it was something he did not do. When objecting to the Commission’s plans, he did not generally protest that these were contrary to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

Johnson is no disciple of Enoch Powell. In his voluminous journalism he pretty much ignores him.

In an interview which I conducted with Johnson for the Christmas 2012 issue of Weltwoche, published in Zurich, he admitted that he has always been seen by hard-line eurosceptics as “incorrigibly wet” on the issue of British membership of the EU.

He is not a dogmatist: something seen also in his attitude to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some of the greatest Telegraph journalists – one thinks of T.E.Utley, who died in 1988 – articulated an eloquent and principled Unionism.

No attempt was made by Johnson to follow in Utley’s footsteps, and last autumn he did a deal with Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, which Unionists regarded with deep disquiet.

It would, however, be wrong to regard Johnson’s European journalism as inconsistent. His Telegraph colleague Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who has known him since 1991 and served as the paper’s correspondent in Brussels from 1999-2004, was occasionally commissioned by Johnson, by now editor of The Spectator, to contribute pieces, and has recalled:

“At no time during those years did I ever detect any deviation from his core view that the EU was amassing unhealthy powers…

“He shared my view entirely that the EU was creating an upper layer of executive government beyond accountability, with a Caesaropapist structure at odds with British democratic self-rule.”

During the long Greek agony over the euro, Johnson’s sympathies were overwhelmingly with the Greeks. Here he is, writing in The Telegraph in May 2012, defying the conventional wisdom that the answer to the eurozone’s problems is to go for fiscal union:

” it is frankly unbelievable that we should now be urging our neighbours to go for fiscal union. It is like seeing a driver heading full-tilt for a brick wall, and then telling them to hit the accelerator rather than the brake.

“Europe now has the lowest growth of any region in the world. We have already wasted years in trying to control this sickness in the euro, and we are saving the cancer and killing the patient. We have blighted countless lives and lost countless jobs by kidding ourselves that the answer to the crisis might be ‘more Europe’. And all for what? To salvage the prestige of the European Project, and to spare the egos of those who were wrong and muddle-headed enough to campaign for the euro.

“Surely it is now time to accept that the short-term pain of a managed euro rupture – a wholesale realignment, possibly a north/south bisection – would be better than continuing to immiserate so many people around the continent.”

The emperor has no clothes: this refrain echoes through Johnson’s journalism, and distresses Europe’s imperial class.

Johnson yearns to attract and amuse the largest possible audience, and does so partly by demonstrating his determination to do things his own way.

Michael Binyon of The Times has recalled how in Brussels Johnson would invariably arrive late for the daily press conference at noon, a fixed point around which the journalists’ day revolved.

Johnson would shamble in at about 12.10 looking as if he had just been pulled through a haystack, and a French journalist once asked Binyon: “Qui est ce monstre?”

If you want to make an impact in Brussels, you have to put on a performance. Johnson realised this, and by 1994, when he left, everyone knew who he was.

The short clip of him meeting von der Leyen last Wednesday evening was somehow tremendously watchable. Johnson as he took his mask off for the benefit of the cameras, then followed his host’s bidding and immediately put it back on again, communicated a subversive geniality, a sense of the ridiculous.

The message was that he had not gone native; that he was still the man who made his name as a journalist by refusing to take the Brussels Establishment as seriously as it took itself.

Whatever the outcome of the present negotiations, Johnson will be determined to preserve his reputation as a man who does not bow to the Establishment, and does not hasten to conform to its timetable or its manners.

By keeping everyone in suspense, uncertain of the outcome, he has maintained the theatrical nature of the proceedings, with himself as the lead actor.

Solemn people have often found his journalism irresponsible, and now they find his politics irresponsible. But that is part of the point. Whether writing, speaking or negotiating, Johnson puts on a performance which the spectators enjoy all the more because it horrifies the guardians of convention.

Ed McGuinness: A lesson for democracy in Europe from an abandoned airport in Cyprus

13 Oct

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s general election.

In the middle of the Mediterranean atop the Mesaoria plain lies a major European international airport. There is a terminal, a runway, baggage machines and even a first class lounge as you would expect.

What is missing are passengers and the passage of time. The Nicosia International Airport is abandoned in the Cypriot Neutral Buffer Zone between the Greek-Cypriot part of the Island in the South and the Turkish occupied territory in the North.

This no man’s land (though it actually contains several populated villages) was said to have been drawn on a military map in 1963, with a wax pencil, by a British general commanding the peacekeeping force on the island in the wake of the Turkish invasion. In recent times, it has become one of many explanatory points in the EU’s ever increasing complex foreign policy proposals.

Almost two and a half thousand miles away on an brisk autumn day in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen was delivering her first State of the Union address, amidst the backdrop of a huge coronavirus stimulus package, on-going migration crises and foreign policy dilemmas over Belarus and China.

As it stands at the moment, essentially in order to enact lasting change, the EU requires every member state to agree on such significant issues as economic sanctions. When effective, the result is the world’s second largest economic bloc exerting a hefty punch.

But more often than not, this bureaucratic behemoth ends up in months off stalemate, compromise and early morning solutions – not very conducive to effective law-making. Von der Leyen, frustrated with this, suggested that, for human rights and sanctions implementation, the bloc should move to a “qualified majority voting” whereby 55 per cent of member states (15) comprising 65 per cent of the population can vote for such measures.

The reason why this issue has come to the fore is the failure of the bloc to come up with unanimous sanctions against Belarus and its despotic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, following his blatant rigging of national elections and violent suppression of pro-democracy protests as a result.

The EU is seemingly united on the issue: indeed, all member states agreed to impose sanctions on their immediate eastern neighbour – all, that is, except Cyprus.

Cyprus, that small country in the middle of the Mediterranean amongst other forgotten Southern European countries, is still in a “cold” war against the Turkish invaders to the North. Their air forces engage in mock dogfights, and even their navies have quite literally run into each other.

Cyprus however, has less than two per cent of the population of Germany and just 0.25 per cent of the EU population.  So it has, whilst in an on-going state of conflict with Turkey, to stand by and watch Germany lead on negotiations with its rival over a migration crisis that is, in relative terms, more important to Angela Merkel than it is to the Cypriot people.

As a result, Nicosia has exercised its only real influence over Brussels to allow its people to be heard over what is its most important foreign policy dilemma – a mechanism that would much less effective under the changes proposed by vvon don der Leyen.

Ironically, von der Leyen is indeed correct. The only way to prevent endless vetoes, continuously circling the issue and ending up with watered down solutions is to adopt a voting system based on a simpler majority, but in doing so she fundamentally breaches the “universal value of democracy and the rights of the individual” within the Union – a phrase she uttered in the same breath as her comments on voting reform.

The confusion at the heart of the matter is this: the operative aspect of the EU is in persistent conflict with its aspiration – in short, it is suffering from an identity crisis with limited escape routes. It is trying, and failing, to be both an economic union and at the same time, seemingly whenever it choses, a political union, with both aims simultaneously mutually exclusive and co-dependant.

An example of which may be advocating for voting reform and lowering representation in one sentence, and espousing the democratic rights of its citizenry in another. Stating it stands up for the rights of its smaller nations, whilst its bigger nations club together to secure powers and influence over their own interests.

The EU is now attempting a slow death of democracy which will concentrate power and wealth in the north-western countries to the detriment and federalisation of the southern nations. It is no wonder that pro-sovereignty movements have taken hold there.

The EU faces a stark choice, which will upset a significant bloc either way.

The first course is to follow their stated aim of continual political integration, which is clearly the option favoured by the President and larger countries who will benefit given their scale.

The second is to recognise the value of devolution, and endeavour to support those countries on the periphery of the Union.

A final option is to simply do nothing…and allow these problems to continue to build in a state of perpetual crisis. As with much in the EU, some mixture of choices two and three is most likely followed by an undemocratic push into option one, sometime many years from now.

The result may well be a smoother machine, but will be a further drain on the power, influence and already low democratic representation in the smaller capitals of the Union who are trapped by economic shackles to the centre.

The UK, and Canada, at the time of writing, have enacted sanctions on Belarus, Lukashenko and his senior lieutenants, and have worked swiftly with the US on multiple occasions this year to act on aggression from Chinese and Russian abuses of the rules based international order.

The “take back control narrative” which prevailed in the UK in 2016 has begun to deliver on those promises. The EU, on the other hand, remains confused about its own democratic values and whether it actually works for all its member states, or only does so when it wants to, or when it benefits its larger members.

Ultimately, the smaller countries in the EU will be the losers in the reforms proposed by von der Leyen, echoed in a recent tweet on by Guy Verholfstadt suggesting “unanimity was killing the EU”.

Well, Guy, it will continue to hold back the EU – or else the EU will end up killing its smaller members. The President of the European Commission ought to visit the abandoned airport in Nicosia. There she would see the land that time forgot which would perhaps spur her, and her colleagues, to remember how easily democracy can die.