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Ursula von der Leyen then proceeded to threaten an export ban to the UK, which again, had to be withdrawn.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.

Stephen Booth: The Brexit trade talks, the romance and realities of fishing, and its crucial importance for Scotland

29 Oct

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

UK and EU negotiators are now targeting a mid-November deadline to reach a trade agreement. This would give the European Parliament enough time to consider the treaty and hold a vote on it in the last session of the year, due in the week of December 14 – only two weeks before the Brexit transition period ends.

A fortnight ago, a public row erupted due to the apparent suggestion from EU leaders that further compromises all had to come from the UK side and that this was a precondition for “intensified” negotiations. After Downing Street declared the talks “over”, some on the EU side, including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, sought to immediately defuse the situation, saying the bloc was also willing to make concessions. Ultimately, it took Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Parliament, in which he said it was his intention to “seek the necessary compromises on both sides”, to get the UK to confirm that talks were back on track.

After these theatrics, the EU does appear to have dropped its insistence that the most difficult areas must be settled before progress can be made on lower hanging fruit. The Financial Times reports that much of the talks this week have been engaged with the technical process of agreeing common legal text in areas where there is already considerable agreement, including many of the rules for trade in goods and services, with a mixture of EU and UK drafts being used to reach a consolidated text.

The fact that very little has leaked out of this week’s round of talks is a positive sign that these negotiations are now serious and, indeed, “intensive”. Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, this week stated optimistically that: “We’re likely to get a deal, but it won’t be easy.” Charles Michel, the EU Council President, was more equivocal, noting that the two sides have yet to overcome their differences on “level playing field” guarantees, fishing, and the deal’s enforcement.

As I noted in my previous column, the differences over subsidies seem to be narrowing and fishing is increasingly emerging as the major sticking point.

Fishing’s political symbolism is outsized compared to its economic importance to either side. The industry is not significant across the UK – it makes up only around 0.1 per cent of gross value added. The economic contribution is similar in Spain, Denmark and France, which together account for over half the total EU catch.

On the UK side, we know that the Common Fisheries Policy was long viewed as one of the major inequities of British membership and fishing communities were among the most vocal supporters of Leave in the EU referendum. In 2017, around 35 per cent of fish landed by EU vessels from the north Atlantic came from UK waters. By contrast, only 13 per cent of fish landed by UK vessels came from EU waters.

There is a certain romance that an island nation attaches to the sea-faring industry. But cold, hard political realities also explain the significance of fishing in this negotiation. Although not a major national employer, the industry is of course very important to particular communities – often remote, such as along the west coast of Scotland, in Wales and Northern Ireland, with limited other employment opportunities – and, ultimately, the negotiation is a zero-sum game for both sides. More fishing quota for the UK means less for the EU.

For a Conservative Government with increasing reason to be concerned about the state of the Union, there is obvious political benefit to ensuring a better settlement. According to the Government’s statistics, the UK’s largest and most valuable fish landings are in the north-east of Scotland, where larger trawlers tend to operate. 40 per cent of fishers working on UK boats are on Scottish boats. Should the UK gain extra quota, this region is likely to benefit the most. A Brexit dividend for Scotland would be an important win.

The EU knows that the UK has leverage when it comes to fishing access. A failure to reach a deal would mean the UK was under no obligation to provide access to foreign boats at all. Brussels had therefore wanted a deal on fishing rights settled in July, well before the final horse-trading of end-game negotiations.

Nevertheless, a wider trade deal – if it includes a better quota share – is also in the interests of the UK fishing industry. The UK imports most of the fish British consumers want to eat but exports most of the fish UK vessels catch. The EU is by far the biggest market for UK exports. It should also be noted that the wider fish processing industry is a larger, although less vocal, employer than the catch sector. Failure to reach a trade deal would increase costs for UK exports and the processing industry via new trade barriers.

Brussels’ starting position – described as “maximalist” by Barnier – was essentially that its fishing rights in UK waters should not change after the transition period. The EU has so far turned down the UK’s request to move to a new regime of annual quota negotiations – a model the UK recently agreed with Norway.

A possible compromise is likely to rest on establishing a process under which EU fleets’ catch would be phased down over a number of years. The UK would regain a much greater share of future catch opportunities but EU fishing communities would be assured of their rights over the medium-term. How the 100 or so stocks that are up for discussion might be apportioned could also present opportunities to ensure certain political constituencies are prioritised.

So far, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has been steadfast in his belief that the EU should stand firm on fishing access, vowing to scupper any Brexit deal that “sacrifices” French fishermen. He is aware of a potential political backlash in coastal and rural areas.

However, despite the rhetoric, reports suggest that in private, at least, the French government is preparing the industry for a compromise. It should be noted that Macron is also effectively negotiating with the rest of the EU about how much of the residual quota France will get in the future.

Given the wider economic and political issues at stake, it still seems unlikely that fishing will be the deal-breaker. Macron is likely to come under increasing pressure from member states most exposed to no deal – Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – to moderate his position. However, it is clear that the political choreography of reaching a deal on this issue is vitally important on both sides of the table.

Stephen Booth: As the Brexit deadline nears, the UK is strong on fishing rights – but Frost indicates movement on state aid.

15 Oct