If you had stood on top of Gibraltar’s famous rock this Wednesday afternoon, a peculiar sight would have greeted your eyes from the harbour below: Floating on its calm waters – a boxing ring, playing host to a succession of some of the world’s highest-level fighters.
In the afternoon heat, with sparks of sunshine lighting up the blue sea all around the harbour, the boxers parade around the ring, jabbing their knuckles through the humid air. They are preparing for a series of fights this weekend, which, in all honesty, should never have taken place here.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
It is only due to the pandemic that Gibraltar on Saturday evening becomes a temporary hub for mainstream professional boxing. In short, it is not least down to the fact that the British Overseas Territory has become the first country in the world to vaccinate its entire adult population.
At the same time, the EU has come under increased pressure this week to step up its own vaccination program, as disputes with manufacturer AstraZeneca continue to thwart the bloc’s attempt at widespread inoculation.
Last weekend, the European Commission tasked Italian authorities to investigate an AstraZeneca vaccine plant on the outskirts of Rome, to which a stock of 29 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines was found, according to Italian newspaper La Stampa.
This prompted concern among EU politicians that the vaccines were being held back for delivery to the UK market – where just less than 50% of the adult population has been vaccinated. The average rate for adult vaccinations in the EU is currently just above 10%.
The finding was followed by a Commission proposal to revise controls of vaccine exports manufactured on the bloc, as a means to ensure that the authorisation of external shipments will be based on how advanced such countries are in their own vaccination programs.
A Commission presentation to EU leaders as part of Thursday’s European Council summit showed that the EU had exported 77 million vaccines to third countries, with the UK having received 21 million doses from the bloc.
However, EU leaders didn’t explicitly and specifically agree with the Commission’s proposal, instead vaguely underlining “the importance of transparency as well as of the use of export authorisations,” while also recognizing the importance of “global value chains…[to]…ensure predictability.”
The UK-EU comparisons on vaccine strategies will continue, despite there being a myriad of geopolitical and logistical reasons why the EU rollout is organically slower than the UK one. Meanwhile, the model of Gibraltar presents the EU with an embarrassing reality: This tiny nation, at the furthest reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, facing down the coasts of northern Africa and resting contentedly upon Mediterranean waters, is currently better off than anywhere else in mainland Europe.
For the UK’s part, vaccinating Gibraltar appeared high on the list of political priorities, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week gleefully proclaiming his delight at the fact that Gibraltar became the first ‘nation in the world’ to complete its entire adult vaccination programme. Every dose was administered to Gibraltarians by UK authorities.
And speaking to Gibraltar’s Parliament, First Minister Fabian Picardo also decided to lacquer the political brass, noting that “the loyalty of the People of Gibraltar to the Crown of the United Kingdom has never and will never be in doubt.”
“The United Kingdom has played a blinder on vaccinations and we have been among the beneficiaries in the British family of nations,” Picardo said.
It wouldn’t be farfetched to imagine a wry smile coursing across the face of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Westminster in response both to the Gibraltarian ingratiating and the fact that this tiny nation cocooned in the middle of the European Union presents itself as a humiliating itch on the body politic of the EU.
The headline fight on Saturday between the UK’s Dillian Whyte and Russia’s Alexander Povetkin will take place at Gibraltar’s comparatively small Europa Point Sports Complex, which has a maximum capacity of 8,000 people – around a quarter of the country’s entire population. Yet the event will represent a taste of liberty seldom savoured in Europe over the past 12 months. I, for one, will be watching on with envy.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.