EU: Covid-19 ’to become political crisis’ says expert
The failure of Brussels to secure sufficient Covid-19 vaccines and its ham-fisted attempt to introduce export controls is expected to lead to a surge in euroscepticism which could have huge implications in national elections. The EU was compared to an organised crime racket after triggering an emergency provision in the Brexit deal which could have led to checks on the Irish border, but Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove yesterday sought to cool tensions. He said the EU had acknowledged it made a mistake in triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol and agreed a “reset” on relations is needed.
“I’ve spoken to the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic about this and we both agreed that we need a reset, that we need to put the people of Northern Ireland first,” he said.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, condemned the EU’s actions as an “absolutely incredible act of hostility”.
Boris Johnson is now under pressure to overhaul the so-called Northern Ireland protocol to ensure the EU cannot use it as a weapon against the UK.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers told the Sunday Express the EU’s bad faith demonstrated why this controversial element of the Brexit deal – which was supposed to prevent checks at the border and protect the peace process – must be addressed.
Pressing the prime minister to “get tough and get this sorted,” she said: “This shows that the EU’s sanctimonious claims about the Good Friday Agreement were only a means to pursue their own political objectives. Now Boris needs to push the EU for some common sense on the NI Protocol.
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“The checks and compliance they are demanding for food brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain is way over the top and unjustified. This must be fixed and, with the EU on the back foot over the protocol, now is the time to get tough and get this sorted.”
Northern Ireland first minister Ms Foster has condemned the protocol as “unworkable” and wants it replaced. The call for action comes amid concerns that rules agreed with the EU threaten the supply of basic goods to Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Sammy Wilson, an MP with her DUP party, also pressed for change, saying: “It is clear that Northern Ireland is just a pawn as the EU seeks to protect itself from the vaccine provision debacle it created.”
The EU suffered a further blow to its reputation when the World Health Organisation warned that the type of export controls it has placed on vaccines produced within its borders risked prolonging the pandemic.
The vaccines debacle has the potential to turbo-charge anti-EU sentiment across the continent ahead of major elections.
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Holland and Bulgaria are due to go the polls in March and there is the potential for early elections in Italy following the resignation of Giuseppe Conte as prime minister.
French faces regional elections this spring and in September Germany will stage the first general election since 2005 when Angela Merkel is not running for chancellor.
Former Brexit minister David Jones said the EU had revealed its “true colours” and behaved like an organised crime group in the wake of its row over access to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
He agrees that the vaccines fiasco and the economic challenges facing the EU could lead to the unravelling of the bloc, and said its “very bullying manner” had damaged its international reputation.
He said: “Essentially, they have conducted themselves in the way that organised criminals do. It’s basically an attempt to hold the UK to ransom for something that the UK is not in any sense – even remotely – [responsible for]. It is nothing to do with the British Government – it’s entirely a private dispute with a commercial company.”
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Mr Jones, who was at the heart of the Vote Leave campaign, said the UK is doing “infinitely better” at vaccine distribution but he takes no pleasure at the turmoil in the EU.
“This is a massive public health crisis and people are dying,” he said.
Predicting that citizens across the EU will ask whether they should follow the UK out of the exit door, he said: “I would think that countries such as Italy which have been badly affected by the pandemic – but also before that were being badly affected by the way that the eurozone works – will be thinking very carefully about it and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see exit from the European Union emerging as an election issue in the next Italian elections….
“If you look at what’s happened to Ireland, they have probably been worse affected than any of the EU countries. They haven’t got enough vaccine but also it was quite clear [that] the EU were entirely happy to throw Ireland to the wolves.”
Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute, accused the EU of mounting a “black propaganda against the Brits”.
“[If] you wanted to destroy the chances of a close relationship between the European Union and Britain you couldn’t have done a better job than the Commission did over the last week,” he warned.
He said the EU had “failed massively” on a matter of “life or death” but had responded by “lashing out at commercial companies” and attacking the UK.
The EU’s first impulse, he said, is to “heap abuse on the British and to try to hit Britain by throwing the book at it in every possible way.”
Dr Eyal does not think we are witnessing the end of the EU but said the confidence of European citizens has been “fundamentally shaken”.
He said: “It’s a failure at every level.”
Boris Johnson is already facing demands to scrap the Brexit deal.
Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Conservative Bow Group, said: “Just a month ago the Bow Group cited 10 reasons why the Brexit deal was unfit for purpose – it has taken less than a month for the public can see why. The EU’s attempt to use the deal to restrict our access to vaccines is a disgrace.
“The deal should be scrapped.”
Rother Valley Conservative MP Alexander Stafford described the EU’s actions over the Irish border “unhinged” and predicted countries will consider leaving the bloc.
He said: “Why would they stick with Europe? Surely they would be better off with a deal with the likes of us and be independent.”
Suggesting eastern European member states would welcome the opportunity to quit the EU, he said: “If we can do a deal reaching out to them, it will make it quite an easy step for them to jump over.”
The EU fiasco has left arch-Brexiteer and Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski relieved that the UK is no longer in the Brussels club.
He said: “I’m even more grateful we are not shackled to the EU octopus.”
Mr Kawczynski expects the European Union will break up and believes Britain’s success at signing trade agreements outside the EU marked the “beginning of the end”.
He said: “[If] Britain can do it, then it will give encouragement to other countries that actually they can do it too.”
In particular, he anticipates a debate in the Republic of Ireland about its future relationship with an EU that “doesn’t even consult them when setting up a hard border with Northern Ireland”.
The Shrewsbury and Atcham MP argues countries in central and eastern Europe are likely to be among the first to quit the EU.
He said: “The greatest catalyst will be when the European Union tries to bludgeon the eight non-eurozone countries to ditch their currencies.”
Morley and Outwood Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns accused the EU of “disgusting behaviour” through its use of the Northern Ireland protocol.
She said: “Whilst campaigning for Brexit, I consistently argued that once an independent nation we should continue to work with the EU, be friends with the EU, and cooperate on a wide range of issues, so it was incredibly disappointing that they decided to take this initial approach.”
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