BEN SCALLAN: EU backpedals on Irish border – but is the damage to their credibility already done?

After a long string of humiliations regarding vaccine supply, and then political chaos following the erection of a customs border on the island of Ireland, the EU has now desperately attempted to back-track by revoking Article 16. But is this really enough for the bloc to save face?

The past few years have not been kind to Brussels to put it mildly, and underneath all the shiny glass buildings and political pomp, there are major cracks beginning to form in the EU’s foundations – cracks which no amount of media spin can hide. 


Predictably, there was utter pandemonium across the political spectrum last night following the EU’s decision to erect a vaccine customs border on the island of Ireland – something that the Commission for years insisted would never happen. In fact, just last January, Ursula von der Leyen went out of her way to insist that a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will “never, ever” happen because of Brexit.

Evidently, this promise did not last even one month after Britain officially left the Union, with the EU immediately going back on their word at the first opportunity. To make matters even worse, they stunned all parties involved by not even asking or consulting the Irish government first – this decision was made autoricatically over the heads of Irish leaders without even so much as a courtesy call. 

After managing to successfully unite the Labour Party, the Tories, Sinn Féin, the DUP, and the Irish government in condemnation of the move (an impressive feat if there ever was one), the Commission quickly backtracked, describing the whole thing as an “oversight” and “a mistake” and promptly reversing the decision.

But while this may be the most recent serious embarrassment for the EU, it certainly hasn’t been the first. This entire situation was brought on by the failed vaccine supply fiasco, where numerous member states are experiencing continent-wide vaccine rollout delays and halts due to the EU’s bungling of the AstraZeneca vaccine delivery. This has caused major supply issues in France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, and elsewhere. 

Ireland, for example, will likely be receiving 300,000 less vaccines than promised – half the number originally expected, which could set back the nation’s vaccine rollout by weeks. There have also been supply issues with the BioNTech-Pfizer jab, who have pushed many of their deliveries back significantly.

The EU’s vaccination campaign is among the slowest in the developed world, with only 2 doses having been administered per every 100 Europeans, compared with 7 in the US and 11 in Brexit Britain.

This extreme sluggishness is what initially led the EU to put strict restrictions on sending vaccines to non-EU states, which they extended to include Great Britain and Northern Ireland – even while they laughably demanded that Britain supply them with a share of its own vaccines.

This is not the first time during the pandemic that the bloc’s members pulled a stunt like this – if you’ll cast your mind back to the early months of the virus in 2020, you’ll remember that even while Italy was embroiled in a deep crisis and in desperate need of help, the Union’s larger member states frantically hoarded medical resources in the most tribal way imaginable, as all “european solidarity” flew out the window.


All in all, this entire episode over the past year or two has painted a very clear picture – and that picture is of a bungling, incompetent institution that doesn’t know what it’s doing. And because of that, across the Union, doubts are beginning to creep in about the longevity of the entire European project.

Germany’s State broadcaster, ZDF, said that blame can be placed at the feet of the EU for “massively overestimating” the production capacities of vaccine manufacturers and “underestimating” the price.

“There is suspicion that manufacturers are delivering faster to countries that are paying higher prices.”

Spanish news outlet, El País, has said that the slow vaccine delivery is a “lethal threat to the EU” and poses a “political risk” to the entire union.

“A failure of the vaccination plan would unleash a crisis of European institutions’ competence and confidence in them, which is difficult to restore.”

Fundamentally, in politics, image is everything. People will only lend political leaders and bodies power as long as they have confidence in those entities to exercise that power competently. And with major cock-up after major cock-up, the EU appears to be doing everything it can to weaken people’s faith in its own project.

For years, Europeans were told that we needed a continent-spanning union like the EU to deal with future crises at a larger, more unified level. Now, at the first real international crisis we’ve seen in decades, the Union’s entire plan has collapsed like a house of cards, and they have made a veritable dog’s dinner of the situation. 

They may have backtracked on the Irish border decision, but in the eyes of the public you only have so much political capital, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. With blunders like this, it’s hard to see how the EU will be trusted to manage future crises ever again.

BEN SCALLAN is a top political commentator for gript.ie in Ireland. He is on Twitter at @Ben_Scallan and on Facebook at BenScallanOfficial