Hot on the heels of the United Kingdom’s (UK) withdrawal agreement with the European Union (EU), a literal and metaphorical shot in the arm for the EU at the height of the Covid 19 crisis, has gone awry.

The European Commission signalled that it was invoking Article 16 – an emergency break – in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol and agreement with the UK. This move on 29 January linked to the EU kick-starting its vaccine programme, opened a veritable can of worms. 

Brexit sent a shockwave through these islands and the EU. As it drew nearer, observers were concerned that the UK would leave without a deal. 

A no deal Brexit was narrowly averted. Unfortunately, though, the dynamic for polarisation and politicisation had been created. 

The UK unilaterally extending adjustment periods relating to the Northern Ireland protocol was driven by this dynamic. And the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine project getting caught in the middle between the EU and UK is another dimension. Relentless briefing against the Anglo-Swedish vaccine by the French President, Emmanuel Macron and others, could be dismissed as political pettiness if lives were not at stake. 

This fuelled fears about the vaccine. Only certification by the European Medicines Agency, headed by Irish woman, Emer Cooke, has started to quell this firestorm. Whether this will restore confidence in it remains to be seen? 

By mid-March, the EU’s vaccine programme had effectively stalled. This was made worse by another gauche performance by European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. The United States and the UK have raced ahead with their programmes, despite having previously been amongst the worst pandemic performers. 

The Commission’s January move will be remembered by the Irish government as akin to their Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) encounter after the 2008 financial crisis. The EU suddenly feared supplies of vaccines leaking across the Irish border, threatening their vaccine programme, responsibility for which, they had just wrested from the member states. The Brussels-centric Commission, a civil-service with a massive dollop of executive power, worried that the new frontier between the EU and the UK in Ireland was the Achilles Heel of their vaccine vision. 

Therefore, Ursula von der Leyen, a German, was ready, at the drop of a hat, to ditch the hard won “no hard border in Ireland” credo. This would have unpacked the most sensitive aspect of the deal with the British. In the event, she damaged and devalued it, creating a difficult genie to put back in the bottle. 

The Irish government who incredibly had not been initially consulted, must have thought Brussels very “perfidious” indeed. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme extracted a pointed Irish response, when Minister for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne, complained that the Commission had radicalised unionism. 

Amid the growing EU–UK acrimony on the protocol, certain central European EU countries are importing untested vaccines from outside the EU. Some, like Hungary, are also in talks with China on vaccine importation and production. 

Slovakia has allegedly bought two million Sputnik V vaccines from Russia, amid scant push back from Brussels. This small central European country of 5.5 million people is home to Maroš Šefcovic, the European Commissioner dealing with the Northern Ireland protocol. 

Hungary has already deployed the Russian product. The Czech Republic is also likely to bring in supplies. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and their larger neighbour, Poland, make up the Visegrad Group, which presents a common front on EU matters. 

That the commissioner dealing with a sensitive part of the agreement between the EU and UK, hails from a country seemingly cherry-picking its EU membership, is certainly thought-provoking. The commissioner was, until 1990 fully integrated in communist structures. Afterwards, the one-time diplomat became a conservative politician, opposed to socially liberal issues. 

It is a mark of the negative dynamic between the EU and the UK that Irish Sea trading rules remain rigid. Whereas, in what George Bush Junior called “New Europe”, their interpretation appears more liberal. 

The European project emerged from the debris of the Second World War. It was a peace process, initially based on economic and social cooperation. When this phase of its development had been consolidated, the project entered a rapid period of evolution, inspired by big picture politicians like Germany’s Helmut Koln and Francois Mitterrand of France. No longer was it just about coal, steel, energy and agriculture. Industrial strategy, innovation and the vision of ever closer political union entered the frame. 

Closer to home, Germany and France’s post war reconciliation inspired John Hume’s doctrine. Hume interacted closely with renowned European Commission President, Jacque Delors, who strongly supported him. 

Delors’ period in office witnessed an intense evolution of the European project, through a sequence of treaties and legislation. Among these was the Single European Act and the Amsterdam treaty. But perhaps the former French finance minister is best known for the 1992 Single Market. 

An attempt to create a constitution for the EU, under the chairmanship of former French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the early 2000s ran into the buffers. Tony Blair allegedly had ambitions of becoming the first elected President of Europe under this envisaged constitution. Institutional and other configurative housekeeping was achieved by the Nice and Lisbon Treaties. But this fell short of what had been previously anticipated. 

In the wake of Delors, who left office in 1995, there has been a trail of non-descript presidents. Former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, turned down the top Commission job in 2004. 

Former Luxembourg finance/prime minister, Jean Claude Junker preceded the present incumbent, Ursula von der Leyen. His period of office was dominated by Brexit. When Junker was selected in 2014, despite credible research by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the confirmation hearings seemed like an exercise in “contrived turbulence”. 

The Article 16 debacle and the vaccination issue, reflects on Ursula von der Leyen’s entire Commission. In particular, the new Irish Commissioner, Mairead Mc Guinness came into office in October 2020, not long before. Mc Guinness has said: “If I had been consulted on this, it wouldn’t have happened.” Her other comments such as “learning lessons” are hyperbole. She was not consulted! 

The central question is: The European Commission being a collegiate body, why was the Irish member not consulted? 

Apart from the Irish Commissioner, there are fundamental issues relating to the Irish state’s relationship with the EU, a relationship that, at least from the time of the financial crisis of 2008, has not been altogether healthy. 

Ursula von der Leyen, who came to office in 2019, dealt with the final stage of Brexit and has been in the eye of the Covid storm, which will no doubt dominate the rest of her term. In addition to the politics of pandemic, this decade is being billed as make or break for humanity. Decisions that will determine the shape of things for decades and generations will have to be made. So, whatever is done in the next five to ten years will have profound implications. So, systems and structures need to be optimal. Are the EU’s? 

Despite the crisis that Europe and elsewhere is facing there is something of a business-as-usual mood pertaining within the EU. Conversations are ongoing with the western Balkans, which includes Serbia and Albania, about joining the EU, for example. During profound crisis, is it conceivable that the EU should be considering expansion? 

Article 16 Safeguards 

  1. If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol. 
  2. If a safeguard measure taken by the Union or the United Kingdom, as the case may be, in accordance with paragraph 1 creates an imbalance between the rights and obligations under this Protocol, the Union or the United Kingdom, as the case may be, may take such proportionate rebalancing measures as are strictly necessary to remedy the imbalance. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol. 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions. 

There are a panoply of other pan European bodies such as the 47-member Council of Europe and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe that deserve greater attention than they receive. The EU has fostered rapid integration and harmonisation, but the centralising, top-down approach and mix of the technocratic and neoliberal will not suffice in the post pandemic era. Proactive partnership, outreach and real solidarity will be, by necessity, rather than choice, needed. 

Cultural, collective, and other human values need to co-exist with the economic. The Irish state for example, in conforming to the EU has become a corporate facility to the increasing exclusion of almost everything else. 

The Article 16 debacle highlights issues to do with an aloof, unelected Commission that is remote from the citizen. Many decent people and politicians are star-struck by the EU, seeing it in panacea terms, probably because it has come to define Europe. Yes, to some of what the EU has achieved, but there were flaws in the post-war European project’s design. Aspects of the fast-track evolution of the ’80s and ’90s and EU enlargement are cases in point. Considered reconfiguration is needed to prevent the loss of the European ideal.

A decentralised and democratic Europe is desirable. This will require better informed and involved citizens and communities. Brexit is a wake-up call and Covid is truly traumatic. The only hope is that they have not entirely been in vain.