Composite; Credit: European Union 2019 Source: EP CC-BY-4.0; D Storan

On vaccines, Dublin’s delusions about the EU have been exposed.

On October 7th, last year, the Irish Times delivered its damning verdict on the British Government’s handling of Covid-19.

“Fantasy as Policy”, it pronounced. “What is clear”, the paper said, “is that the British prime minister has not lost his capacity for nonsense – his speech was full of Churchillian bluster and exceptionalism about the UK seeing off “the virus like every other alien invader for the last 1,000 years”.

How odd, then, that the UK is vastly closer to seeing off the virus, and achieving full vaccination, than we are here in Ireland. Fantasy may well have been policy at times over the last year in Britain. In Ireland, fantasy is practically in the constitution.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this, of course. When the Brexit trade deal was finalised a few weeks ago, what was supposed to happen – according, at least, to the prevailing views in Dublin – was that the balance of power and influence on these two islands of ours would change for good.

Britain, now isolated and alone, would find, across the Irish sea, a muscular and influential neighbour, with powerful allies and vastly greater economic clout. In all negotiations between us, many predicted, the might of the EU would overwhelm the fading power of the British Crown. This was not just forecast – it was forecast with relish.

Brexit would not just mean a re-balancing of power, we were assured, it would mean the very break-up of Britain itself, leaving the constituent parts to lick their wounds and, eventually, crawl back to the European table in search of chastened absolution.

The first test of this new order was to be the Covid vaccine rollout. Britain, unwisely, the experts said, opted out of the European Union’s vaccine purchase scheme, in favour of going it alone.

It is worth recalling (because in Ireland we are prone to forget these things) that this was almost universally regarded as a catastrophic error by the aforementioned experts, as well as by the chattering classes in Dublin, and by Remainer voices in London. Little England, the reasoning went, could not possibly hope to compete on the global stage with the vast purchasing power of the mighty European Union. The joint vaccine scheme would deliver for Ireland, and Britain would be left with higher costs, and grasping to catch the crumbs from Europe’s table.

That, of course, is not how it has turned out.

In the first proper clash between Britain and the European Union since Brexit became official, it was Brussels, not London, who behaved like the scrappy geopolitical underdog. And it was London, not Brussels, which behaved with the firmness, and restraint, befitting a major global power. In the days since Ursula Von der Leyen decided, apparently unilaterally, to humiliate the EU, it is Britain which has acted with surprising restraint, and an unwillingness to crow unnecessarily about its victory in the Battles of Astra and Zenica.

And when it comes to obtaining the necessary vaccines here in Ireland, London says it stands ready to aid us, while Brussels remains engulfed in controversy and incompetence.

This should, though it will of course not, prompt some soul-searching and reflection in Dublin.

It is not hard to imagine what the headlines in the Irish press would be saying, were the situation reversed. Had it been the UK to falter, and fail to secure vaccine supplies, while the EU raced ahead with a vaccination programme, we all know what the papers in Irish Newsagents would be saying. We can all hear, if we close our eyes, the triumphalism of Irish radio hosts, in this alternate timeline. We can all see, in our minds eye, the tweets from people like Neale Richmond, and various EU-funded academics.

The truth is, that when it comes to the vaccine, there but for the grace of Brexit goes the United Kingdom, too. They escaped this mess, though they could not have foreseen it, on June 23rd 2016.

As to how big the repercussions will be, we can only guess: It is almost universally assumed that the vaccine is vital for economic recovery. If mass vaccination confers a significant economic benefit, and being amongst the first countries out of the lockdown cycle matters, then the UK has won a significant head start.

The problem, here in Ireland, is that often it is politicians in London who are more attuned to our national interest than politicians in Dublin. Though many of our citizens seem to detest it, what happens in the UK is vastly more important, socially, economically, and politically, to Ireland than what happens in Bucharest, or Berlin, or Milan. Saying so, by the way, is not some sort of crime against Irish nationalism: Independence is not incompatible with a basic recognition of where your most important interests lie, and which country your most important diplomatic relationship is with. Indeed, being clear-sighted about those issues is vital, if an independent country wishes to succeed.

Ireland has, for some reason, decided to chain its Covid destiny to that of the Germans, and the French, and the Belgians, and the Dutch. As it turns out, we’d have been vastly better off to align our Covid destiny to the British.

Over the past few years, the Irish Government has consciously, and at every turn, sought to portray the UK, post Brexit, as a fading power no longer relevant to Ireland. Our diplomacy has been characterised, very often, by high-handed sneering, and threats to set our European friends, or our American friends, on the British if they don’t behave as we’d wish.

For Ireland, now, to be in a position where it may be the British Government, not the Europeans, or Joe Biden, who rides to our aid, must be quietly satisfying for London, even if they would never say so.

The truth is that on the issue of vaccines, Ireland’s comfortable delusions about both the European Union, and Brexit, have been ruthlessly exposed. We are not necessarily “stronger” by virtue of our membership of the club in Brussels. What we are, in fact, is a tiny cog in a large, cumbersome, and very creaky wheel.

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