The decision to attempt to prevent vaccines made in the EU getting to the UK via Northern Ireland led to a flurry of arguments that almost all mirrored the same nationalist impulse of the EU that was being criticised. This was true of some on the left as much as any other.
Production of vaccines is an international effort and equitable access could only be carried out by agreed international Governmental and regulatory action. If it is true, as has been claimed, that AstraZeneca had claimed that it would provide vaccines to the EU from its UK operation and promised the UK it would not, then its failure to deliver the number promised to the EU is a neat example of international production suffering from the imperatives of capitalist ownership.
On top of this, it is obvious that the conflict between the EU and UK would not have arisen without Brexit, even if its supporters are trumpeting the cack-handed approach of the European Commission and celebrating the faster advance in vaccination of the UK compared to the EU. This opportunity for Brexiteers arises because it involves one of the few industries in which Britain is a leading participant.
Prize for top hypocrite in the affair must go to the DUP leader Arlene Foster who expressed outrage at the EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 of the Irish Protocol. This allows either the EU or the UK – in the event that the application of the instrument leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade” – unilaterally to take “appropriate safeguard measures”.
This, she condemned as an “incredible act of hostility” that places a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. “By triggering Article 16 in this manner the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives”.
The impulsive triggering of Article 16, before hastily being withdrawn, shows that the EU is indeed motivated by self-interest, something that no one with even a modicum of sense would entertain the least doubt about for a second. Socialist opponents of Brexit didn’t oppose the project because there was any illusion in the purity of the motivations of the EU.
However, a unionist complaining about the hardening of the Irish border, that they spend every minute of existence fretting over the permanence of, is too absurd for words. Since a number of leading figures in her party have already been calling for Article 16 to be invoked by the British, the charge of an “incredible act of hostility” is more than a bit rich.
In the North of Ireland, to point such things out is called ‘whataboutery’, and is frowned upon, which means circumlocution is constantly required to call someone a hypocrite and allows those who exercise it most to get away with it most often. The North of Ireland is getting its vaccine from Britain so no one would be missing out if they weren’t allowed to get it through a supply across the Irish border.
What it shows is that disputes between Britain and the EU have the potential to reverberate inside the North and act as a catalyst for political instability, exactly what the Protocol was to supposed to avoid but reflecting the fact that the political agreement it was to support is unstable. Unionists are reminded, and demoralised by the fact, that for some essential purposes the EU determines economic and social policy and the sovereignty of the British has been diminished; while nationalists have been reminded that the EU is not a cuddly benefactor but has its own interests and that the idea of upending the Protocol they support has just become more conceivable. The latter will at least have been assuaged by the quick change of approach by the EU, promptly enacted following representations by the Irish member state, which will have had some effect.
Some on the left saw the episode as displaying the necessity for big pharma to be nationalised, or put under public ownership, as the misleading euphemism puts it. In fact, state ownership would have exacerbated rivalry between producers of the vaccine. Brexit is itself testament to the destructive rivalry that can be introduced to economic and social relationships by state competition. The pharmaceutical industry is characterised by international research, development and production and it would not help if state ownership overlaid company competition.
The answer to the equitable distribution of vaccines is international cooperation that cannot be assumed to be achieved by capitalist states that might (and just has) rather hindered the international cooperation that is needed. The socialist answer is to recognise that the separate interest of different companies and states stands in stark contrast to the common interest of workers in the pharma companies and those outside, in every country, most vulnerable to the virus and the catastrophic effects of lockdown.
It is in their joint interest that they, their families, friends and communities are protected, recognising that no single country will have immunity unless they all have it. This points not to state ownership but the ownership of the workers, in workers’ cooperatives, working together across borders in taking over the current development of vaccines in their own interests.
If socialism is the answer, the answer is the action of workers not capitalist states, although again and again so many parts of the left forget this, if they were ever aware of it in the first place.