It seems a long time ago now, but during the first wave of the pandemic, commentators and politicians talked excitedly about how coronavirus would bring the world together against the “common enemy”. Borders were irrelevant. Nations would have to work together. One for all and all for one. I always thought this was somewhat naïve. The world doesn’t work like that.

In fact, the very reverse has been the case, as nations have rediscovered their primary role in protecting their own people first. Borders are back. The globalisation trend of the last half century is being thrown into reverse as travel is banned indefinitely and international supply chains collapse. When Donald Trump closed the borders to EU travellers back in March he was attacked for being xenophobic, even racist. Now everyone’s shutting borders. Nationalism is on the march: from Scotland to New Zealand.

Vaccine nationalism has now ripped through Europe. Brussels has resorted to the modern equivalent of gunboat diplomacy: issuing threats, raiding factories, seeking to halt the movement of vaccines, even “mistakenly” trying to create a hard border in Ireland. It seems that the spirit of Donald Trump lives on in Brussels.

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The target is the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca, but the United Kingdom is also in the frame, accused of a “me first” approach and, by extension, of hoarding of supplies of the precious vaccines. Nicola Sturgeon has also got in the blame game, apparently claiming UK responsibility for the delays in the Scottish vaccine programme.

Opposition parties claim it is rather a result of her inefficiency.

Brussels, meanwhile, is trying to strong arm AstraZeneca into redirecting some of its UK vaccine supply to Europe. It is also threatening to block exports of the Pfizer vaccine from Europe.

This would be an extraordinary lapse into vaccine protectionism. It would arguably be illegal under EU laws on state intervention and free movement. But when lives are at stake, who cares about laws.

The situation in Europe is undoubtedly dire. Countries like Spain and Portugal, which are struggling to cope with a menacing third wave of Covid, have been forced to cancel immunisation programmes. Old people could die as a result of not getting their jags on time.

The European press is furious and has accused Brussels of a catastrophic failure to meet its obligations.

Brussels had insisted on negotiating for vaccines collectively for all countries above the heads of individual nation states.

This was to prevent a recurrence of the chaotic border closures last April, and the unedifying sight of EU countries squabbling over the delivery of PPE masks and gowns. It didn’t want smaller countries to be left behind, either. Unfortunately, the whole of the EU has now found itself in the vaccine slow lane.

Britain got ahead of the curve, for once.

In March, long before it was even known whether a vaccine against Covid-19 was possible, the UK Government decided to invest massively in the development of what it regarded as the most likely candidates.

It pumped money into the Oxford research and, more importantly, into AstraZeneca’s manufacturing supply chain. The UK Vaccine Taskforce recruited 400,000 volunteers to test future vaccines. This meant that if and when new ones emerged they could receive regulatory approval very quickly.

The UK Government signed contracts with AstraZeneca for 100 million doses three months before Brussels.

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The EU held out for a lower cost and got caught in bureaucratic delays trying to negotiate for all 27 nations in the Union. The EU had still not authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine for use last week, even as it was accusing the firm – which makes no profit from the vaccine – of selling to the highest bidder.

All hell broke loose on January 21 when AstraZeneca told Brussels that because of problems in its Belgian plant, it could only supply one-quarter of the 80 million odd doses it had agreed to deliver by March.

The company insists that it had entered into what is called a “best effort” agreement, and that it gave no cast-iron commitment to deliver come what may.

The UK Government has sought to keep out of the row. There has been some injudicious crowing from Brexiters like Nigel Farage. But Boris Johnson has tried to sound magnanimous, offering to help out in the EU once its UK order has been fulfilled.

But no way is he agreeing to give up British vaccines ordered and paid for. If he did, the immunisation schedule would be delayed here and people in the UK might die.

It’s the age-old question of altruism: are you willing to risk the lives of British people in order to save lives in other countries?

As in wartime, the first responsibility of any government in a national crisis is always going to be the welfare of its own people. This is a legal responsibility of the state, though one so obvious that it rarely needs to be stated.

The sight of the richest countries on the planet squabbling over millions of vaccines is unedifying, to put it mildly. Many African countries have been able only to get their hands on hundreds or less. However, the poor countries have been cautious in their condemnation.

They need this to be resolved quickly so they can get sorted with vaccines under the UN-sponsored COVAX programme. The UK has pledged £548 million, rather more than the EU.

With the world watching there is a moral imperative for this disgraceful row to be resolved as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, new vaccines seem to be arriving almost by the week, like the Valneva vaccine which is to be manufactured in Livingston. Once again, the UK pre-ordered 60 million doses and invested heavily in manufacturing before there was any guarantee of success.

Boris Johnson made a point of visiting the plant last week to demonstrate the “benefits of the Union”.

The question being asked in the capitals of Europe, and in Germany in particular, is why the European Union, with all its buying power, was left so flat-footed.

It underlines a basic contradiction in the constitutional arrangements. It is baked into the DNA of the EU that nationalism is a curse, which in many ways it is. They talk of “British exceptionalism” and “Brexit nativism” as if this is a character defect.

However, the problem with Brussels is precisely that it is not a nation and does not see itself as responsible to any one national community.

The European Commission is not a democratic institution and cannot be held to account through a general election. It is a bureaucracy which, like all bureaucracies, puts its own protocols first.

Everything has to be processed through the national governments of 27 member states. Nimble it is not.

A delay in supply might have seemed a small price to pay for ensuring that all of Europe moved at the same pace. However, it failed to appreciate that the voters in member countries would not see it that way.

In future, Europe may have to become a proper state or the nations may, to coin a phrase, take back control.