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EU has lost to ‘unfair’ Johnson tactics, says Italy’s ex-PM
Boris Johnson

08 Feb 2021 / Brexit Print

EU lost to ‘unfair’ Johnson, says Italy’s ex-PM

Pro-European public opinion could switch very quickly as a result of the EU Article 16 decision last week, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said last week, warning that care needs to be taken that “strong remainers” are not turned against the EU. 

Speaking at Thursday's DCU Brexit Institute seminar, (4 February) Ahern said that it is a reality that shop shelves in the North are 40% empty of stock as a result of the too-strict interpretation of EU rules and regulations.

Staff have also been absent for several days as a result of intimidation, he said.

Trade barriers 

Ahern said that tariffs and trade barriers were being loosened when he was Minister for Finance in January 1993 and it inevitably took a while for things to settle down.

It’s not sensible for rules and regulations to be so tight that people cannot buy basic products, the former Taoiseach said, since the North is still in the Single Market, and regimentation must not prevent the free flow of goods.

The UK leaving the EU was the “daftest decision”, and the only thing that would surpass that would be Ireland leaving, Ahern added. 

Commission’s ‘huge mistake’

Former Italian PM Enrico Letta told the webinar that it is possible to recover from the European Commission’s mistake last weekend over the NI Protocol.

“I think it was a mistake, a huge mistake,” he said, warning of tough consequences for EU solidarity. 

“It  is very important to be clear in the message on this point, to continue on the same line that we had during the Michel Barnier period, when there was strong solidarity and transparency among the states,” he said.

EU states such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands were previously close to the UK, and Barnier’s big success was to keep everyone together, Letta said.

'Out is better'

That the UK is performing better on vaccine rollout is giving the “short but terrible message that out is better”, he said.

“I don’t think it’s true for many reasons, but the short messages are the strongest messages. 

“The message of the vaccination is a horrible one and this is why we have to recuperate immediately,” he said.

“This the top issue for the EU Commission in the next week,” Letta said, since this message can’t be allowed to spread around Europe.

Letta said the crucial point is that UK PM Boris Johnson is unfair in the way he conducts the partnership with the EU.

“We lost in the last two weeks,” he said.

Former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb agreed that Johnson was engaging in a communications war on the vaccines, which he would continue.

Stubb said that the EU budget was rather limited and the EU could only do “high politics” of negotiating vaccine doses, since health care and social questions were in the hands of nation states.

Vaccine wars

He said that small nations such as Ireland or Finland would not be able to negotiate successfully with big pharma companies, and without EU Commission involvement there would be internal vaccine wars as states jostled for dosages.

The commission made double mistakes, with the Protocol, and with poor communication, he said, fully agreeing with Enrico Letta that the Article 16 threat was a “grave mistake” by the European Commission.

“Things went from bad to worse when the blame was put on another commissioner. I think it was a very hasty decision and it was done in a very small group.” 

Stubb said he wanted to personally thank the Irish Government for “hitting the phones” immediately.

“Why should the European Union take a decision that slaps the face everything it stands for, not least solidarity, not least free movement of goods, and not least understanding that this pandemic is transnational by definition and therefore requires transnational and global solutions,” he asked.

Dismantling of UK

Stubb said that Brexit would go only in two directions  – either the dismantling of the UK as we know it, or the UK making a comeback to EU membership in ten years.

He said the Irish Government should play it cool, see how things develop, and make sure the Protocol mess doesn’t happen again.

Judgment will come on the final tallies of those infected and those dead from the virus, Stubb said.

The ex-Finnish PM told the DCU webinar that the commission will have a very difficult month in February.

“They have to make the date to match the doses – that in March, April and May, they have gone full throttle with the vaccines.”


The commission can’t make another communications blunder, he warned.

Stubb said that the EU is more than an international organisation but less than a state.

In his opinion, the EU would work best as a decentralised federation, but that is unlikely to happen.

“We need to stop thinking about the EU as some kind of utopia, a final phase of integration. It’s not going to happen.

“I’ll say it very bluntly – Europe is basically a process and that process always has three phases: crisis, chaos, and sub-optimal solution, and that’s what we are going to have to live with.”


Dr Federico Fabbrini, whose new book "Brexit & the Future of the European Union", recently published by Oxford University Press, was launched at the webinar, said that Brexit was a watershed moment for the history of the EU, and a transformative event.

“We need to reckon with that and reckon with all its implications. Customs checks are delaying postal deliveries and we are only now starting to understand what Brexit means.

“Europe is a process and we can never stand still, we must always strive towards a more perfect union,” he said.

Poor knowledge

Brexit was the result of poor knowledge about what Europe is and what Europe does, and it’s essential to keep raising awareness among the young about the value and potential of European integration, Professor Fabbrini said.

In relation to a united Ireland, former Italian PM Letta said that it would be a dream for him to get a united Ireland as a final outcome, and that this would be a boost to the European idea. 

“I see that in rugby it works, so why don’t we extend rugby to the rest of life?” he asked.

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