EU row over Covid jabs has destroyed the faith of a Remainer like me

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The EU row over Covid jabs has destroyed the faith of an old Remainer like me

BBC news presenters like to pretend that they are impartial – except when it comes to distinguishing between good and evil. They have no choice. That’s the test that the great Lord Reith set a century ago and, by and large, it applies today. But it’s not easy.

I failed in the eyes of many listeners when I was presenting the Today programme in the long run-up to the EU referendum in 2016. They accused me of being so biased in favour of Brexit that I never gave the Remainers a fair chance to state their case. They were right about me being biased – but wrong about where my bias lay.

I was so determined not to show my true colours that I might just possibly have given Remainers a slightly rougher ride than they deserved when I interviewed them. In the highly charged atmosphere of the most bitterly fought referendum in this nation’s history, that was more than enough to condemn me in the eyes of Remainers.

The fact is, I was one of them: A Remainer through and through.

But this week it’s hard for an old Remainer like me, waiting to have his second jab, not to muse on his referendum vote back in 2016 and wonder whether he might have voted differently if he’d known then what he knows now.

It is a loss of faith that would never have occurred to my younger self.

I failed in the eyes of many listeners when I was presenting the Today programme in the long run-up to the EU referendum in 2016

But this week it’s hard for an old Remainer like me, waiting to have his second jab, not to muse on his referendum vote back in 2016 and wonder whether he might have voted differently if he’d known then what he knows now

I’d been a pro-European ever since we signed up to the EEC in 1973. How could any idealistic young man, born even as German bombs were falling on his home city, fail to be moved by the grand notion of a united Europe?

I’ll admit that my faith was shaken more than once in the decades that followed but never enough to join the ranks of the Brexiteers.

Europe was, by a mile, our biggest trading partner and therefore crucial to our future prosperity. And, yes, I might have had growing misgivings about the Brussels dream of an ‘ever closer union’ but surely that was a small price to pay for peace on a continent racked by war for centuries.

So it was that I went to bed as the referendum polling stations were closing on June 23, 2016, confident that I’d be downing a glass of bubbly with my Today colleagues after the results came in the following morning. Instead the newsroom resembled a wake after the death of a loved one. The mourning was led by the big bosses.

In the five years since there have been many occasions on which I’ve been able to say: Told you so! But the fiasco of repeated failures to strike a decent deal pale in to insignificance compared with what is happening as I write. It is not being melodramatic to claim that lives are at stake.

t’s something else again for the EU – led by the risible figure of Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) – to threaten a vaccine war with the United Kingdom

The UK’s vaccine rollout has surged far ahead of the EU’s leaving the bloc under huge pressure to explain why

 

Vaccination against Covid saves lives. Denial of the vaccine kills people. It’s one thing for the bureaucrats of Brussels or Whitehall to squabble over the finer details of how the Northern Ireland border might (or might not) operate. It’s something else again for the EU – led by the risible figure of Ursula von der Leyen – to threaten a vaccine war with the United Kingdom.

It is a threat that seems to have little justification other than to distract attention from the EU’s own pathetic failure to procure the jabs that are needed for the EU’s own citizens and deliver them speedily to those most at risk.

It is both shameful and devious to try to blame Britain for having succeeded so magnificently where the EU has failed. Boris Johnson, who looked so careworn when he appeared before the media this week – as well he might – must be thanking his lucky stars for President von der Leyen’s performance.

It’s like a boxer who’s been on the ropes for most of the bout watching his opponent punch himself on the nose.

Brussels must have had high hopes of a morale-boosting performance from the respected politician and MEP Philippe Lamberts when he appeared on the Today programme yesterday. And indeed all went well when he launched an attack on the inability to fulfil promises of the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca. They had, he said, ‘performed with a track record of dishonesty. Over promising. Under delivering by massive amounts. We have seen that they have also bungled up at least twice their test data so everything points to a company that cannot be relied upon.’

Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts today launched a full-frontal attack on the UK-based company, which he said had ‘over-promised and under-delivered’ on doses

This chart shows how the AstraZeneca supply chain looks across Europe 

Strong stuff but, as my old friend Justin Webb pointed out, it would sound more cogent coming from the European side if it weren’t for the fact that there are millions of AZ doses available in Europe that are not being used. They’re just being stored.

Mr Lamberts, doubtless to the dismay of his EU President, agreed. Indeed, he made no attempt to conceal his admiration for what Britain has done. As he said, the track record of member states pales in comparison.

He even agreed with Justin that ‘AZ has been the subject of a scurrilous campaign around Europe, a campaign that went right to the top of European politics, that suggested things about the vaccine that weren’t true, that have led to all sorts of confusion for Europeans on whether to take it.’

So where do we go from here?

What many European politicians, including Mr Lamberts, wanted is for the British Government, the EU commission and AZ at the highest levels to sit together and try to find a mutually agreeable solution. And last night the UK and the EU did exactly that.

Afterwards they issued a joint statement saying they are working together ‘to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens’, adding: ‘In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.’

Such emollience came not before time. Earlier in the day, Brussels had upped the ante by publishing proposals widening the criteria for restricting exports to countries with high jab rates. The Italian authorities went so far as to impound unilaterally 29million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Vaccine nationalism is something we should all fear. Some estimates suggest a European ban could delay Britain’s vaccine drive by two months and affect supply by 20 per cent.

As Johnson has put it, ‘We are all fighting the same pandemic… Vaccines are an international operation.’ What he does not want is a retaliatory ban on exports: ‘We do not believe in blockades of any kind.’

And what does Brussels really want? Hard to say.

The French Europe minister Clement Beaune has said: ‘We want to avoid AstraZeneca doses produced in Europe going to Britain when we are not receiving anything.’ The German Chancellor Angela Merkel no less has said the EU has ‘a problem with AstraZeneca’.

And a ban on exporting drugs is not the only weapon in the Brussels armoury. The European Council President Charles Michel has raised the prospect that the EU could adopt ‘urgent measures’ by invoking an emergency provision in the EU treaties which ostensibly could be used to force vaccine makers to share their patents or other licenses.

In the formal language of an EU treaty it is known as compulsory licensing. Drug companies might prefer the word ‘theft’.

But perhaps all this is unnecessarily alarmist. Perhaps there will be no ban, no vaccine war, no enforced ‘sharing’ of patents.

Perhaps. But I would need to regain my faith in the Remainer religion to accept that.

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