IN THE row over its incompetence in securing Covid vaccine supplies, the European Commission is failing to learn the political adage that if you are in a hole, the solution is to stop digging.

Seeking to hide its failings with unjustified criticism of the UK's vaccine programme, while seeking supplies from Russia and China, is bizarre.

Zoom the focus back and Brussels is a victim of the law of unintended consequences, which in this case began with a golf match in Ireland. That was attended by the then trade and former agricultural commissioner, Phil Hogan who, despite an apology for infringing coronavirus rules, was forced to resign by the Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

He was replaced by Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister. He lacks the experience and business sense of Hogan, and is now allegedly being thrown under the bus by von der Leyen over the vaccine export ban. Dirty politics indeed, and very unintended consequence of Hogan's decision to attend a post-golf dinner.

With the bus looming down on Dombrovskis, one of the ironies is that trade is an area where the EU is achieving some successes, particularly in agriculture and food. Despite the havoc of coronavirus in 2020 and the tariff war between the EU and United States over subsidies to Airbus, the EU has continued to grow its food exports. It is now by any standards a world class player and for the UK a serious competitor in every market.

Growth in 2020 was understandably modest, but EU food and agriculture exports topped €150 billion, with the gap between exports and imports €50 billion in Europe's favour. Brussels has also confirmed that its massive food promotion budget is delivering dividends, with increased sales translating into value added growth in rural economies. The UK is now a third country and even before the problems of the finalised Brexit deal were triggered, the UK was massively losing more food sales to the EU-27 than it was losing in business with the UK.

The government in London is rightfully enjoying its success over the vaccine, but it still needs to get to grips with the trade issue. It is continuing to spin even minor successes as hard as it can, but has yet to prove its core claim that the UK can be more successful as a trading nation outside the EU. The latest claim of 'success' from the international trade minister, Liz Truss, was that the UK might join a trans-Pacific free trade partnership, with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. That is a bold move, even though she has already claimed a free trade deal with Japan is in place.

It is hard to see how this might work. It is even harder to see how it could go hand in hand with the continuation of tariffs on food from some of the key countries involved, particularly Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Debate would not be about the quality of what they produce, which makes trade more difficult to block, but about the economic damage these countries could do to the farming industry here.

By no stretch of the imagination is the UK part of the same trading area as these countries. They have established trade connections over many years and for them a free trade zone makes economic sense. The UK is and always would be an outsider to the group. What the policy appears to be about is ignoring the massive market on our doorstep in the EU, just to prove that the UK has other fish – no pun intended – to fry. Truss also claimed a trade deal with the United States was 'in the pipeline'. That may be so, but it a pipeline that is very long and she would be rash to expect early progress.

For now trade policy in London seems to be more about scoring points and chasing pipe-dreams than about clearing up the obstacles to success in the free trade deal we have with the EU as the world's biggest free trade area. Ironically, in another unintended consequence, the row over vaccines and Brussels' fundamental error over the Northern Ireland protocol might have made the EU more receptive to solving the problems surrounding the rushed Christmas Eve trade deal. That would be when both stop digging a deeper hole.