With its open economy, Ireland is particularly vulnerable to Europe’s descent into senseless vaccine nationalism
Published: 23 March 2021
If you take the Pfizer vaccine,” said the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin – one of the sanest voices emerging from the EU, as the French and Germans threaten blockades at a time of mass hysteria over the AstraZeneca jab – “280 materials go into making the vaccine, 86 suppliers supply those materials from 19 countries around the world.” In the radio interview aimed on Monday at the EU Commission and a fraught domestic audience, he explained patiently: “You start putting up barriers, other countries may follow suit in terms of some of those vital raw materials that are required. If we start that we are in trouble.”
Faith in the EU has been damaged across the bloc by the vaccine fiasco, but perhaps no member state is more exposed to Brussels’ latest bout of vaccine nationalism as Ireland.
Martin knows how protectionism in the early years of an independent Ireland produced economic stagnation, grinding poverty and mass emigration, and how the shift to free trade, the encouragement of foreign direct investment, and the country’s accession to the EEC in 1973 transformed a basket case into the Celtic Tiger. Confiscation of factories, and abrogation of intellectual property rights, as the Commission seems to be planning, would make all of Europe suspect as a location for foreign investment, but Ireland’s open economy would be left particularly vulnerable.
Martin’s comments are all the more striking because of the position the EU has come to hold in Ireland over the past half century. In thrall for most of its life to the Catholic Church and socially conservative, EU and euro membership helped give Ireland the confidence to embrace secularism and social change at such a dizzying pace that it now unquestioningly swallows the progressive agenda. The EU rendered the country much less dependent on trade with the UK, easing the path to the peace settlement in 1998.
Being forced by Brussels to have second referendums in 2001 and 2008 on the Nice and Lisbon treaties did not dent Ireland’s allegiance: there was no rebellion when, following the disaster of the 2008-9 global financial crisis, the Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund imposed a brutal three-year austerity regime designed to save the German banks.
Ireland bounced back self-confidently, only to suffer a hammer blow with Brexit that caused consternation and fed the latent Anglophobia that is ruthlessly exploited by Sinn Fein north and south. For four years, the commentariat preached that the Brits had committed economic and political suicide and would probably soon be on their knees begging for readmittance to the EU on any terms. Boris, of course, was a bad joke and his handling of Covid proved his criminal incompetence and irresponsibility.
From 2016, discouraged by Brussels from working with the UK to find a pain-free technological way of solving the problem of the Irish border, Ireland had danced to Michel Barnier’s tune and the nationalist drumbeat that imposed the internal UK border known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
There was no questioning of the Commission’s instruction to accept what vaccines it decided to provide in whatever numbers it determined, but the vaccine crisis has been a shattering blow. And now, not only has Boris got something triumphantly right, but the Commission has got not only the vaccine provision catastrophically wrong, but European leaders have undermined people’s faith in AstraZeneca, the most readily available vaccine.
There is nothing that Boris and Martin would like better than to provide more vaccines quickly to the Republic. Since it is in the Common Travel Area, it would be in the British national interest to give vulnerable Irish citizens priority over very young British adults. But will the Commission help or hinder that? And there’s the problem of the Northern Ireland protocol which the EU has been spitefully implementing to cause maximum disruption and which has made unionists unlikely to be sympathetic.
Until now, opposition to the EU in Ireland didn’t reach double figures. It’s hard to see how the present shambles will not cause the Irish population to think more sceptically about blindly trusting the EU. Especially, if its leaders don’t listen to the wise words of Micheál Martin.