What if...the United Kingdom invaded the Netherlands?

What if...the United Kingdom invaded the Netherlands?

A hypothetical scenario where former Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, went ahead with his considerations of military options for acquiring AstraZeneca vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic. This post considers the legal implications for this almost unthinkable move.

In early December 2023, an article caught my attention. During the UK Covid inquiry, a plan—or let us rather call it a wild idea—was revealed that then Prime Minister Boris Johnson considered military options to obtain doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from a plant in Leiden. These were purchased by the UK Government, but were being held back because there was a dispute about the doses that were supposed to be delivered to the EU. The revelation did not resonate for very long, not that much attention was paid to it, and the news quickly moved on to more serious elements of the UK inquiry. But we live in a time where Marvel Studios already finished a second season of “What If?”, so let us entertain for a second that this idea was not only further developed, but executed as well. Would the UK and the EU have gone to war? In how far would such an attack have destabilized the region? Follow me and ponder …

If we hypothesize that the plan came to fruition, this means the vaccine storage facility would have been attacked and the vaccine taken. In all likelihood it would have been Special Forces, presumably under the command of MI6, that would have carried this out. Given that this would have taken everyone by surprise, one should assume that they would have been, at least initially, successful. The question is whether there is any precedent we can refer to that resembles this situation, so that we can derive from there how this would have played out? The closest case would be the Rainbow Warrior case. This was essentially a dispute between France and New Zealand after a Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, was sunk by French agents of the Directorate-General for External Security in the harbor of Auckland in 1985. The case was handled by New Zealand as both a breach of international law (in which they saw France as the culprit) and a domestic criminal offense (targeting the individual French agents). This resulted in extensive diplomatic negotiations about financial restitutions, official apologies, and individual criminal liability. In the end, the dispute was settled by a UN Tribunal chaired by the UN Secretary-General at that point in time. Cool heads prevailed, and though the relationship between the two countries was not ideal for some time, it eventually normalized.

Should the conclusion then be that the attack would not have caused too many problems, apart from a rocky relationship between the UK and the Netherlands for some time? That would be premature. There are two important complications: First, unlike France and New Zealand, the UK and the Netherlands are both NATO members (New Zealand is a partner, not a full member). A military attack on the soil of the Netherlands by the UK would automatically trigger an Article 5 response (famously described as "an attack on one is an attack on all"). This situation can be resolved with a somewhat pragmatic approach: measures taken based on Article 5 do not continue after security is restored. Given the brevity of the incursion, there wouldn’t be time to mount any response, hence no military action would be taken against the UK. Still, this goes beyond a bilateral issue and makes it a multilateral one, potentially having far-reaching consequences for the stability of NATO. There is no set procedure for this. One would assume the UK would be generally seen as the aggressor, but some NATO members may argue that they had a legitimate claim to the vaccines, and sides would be taken. We have seen this when tensions between Turkey and Greece flare up .

The second complication would be on the domestic criminal side. Presumably, the Netherlands would move for a TaCA warrant (Trade and Cooperation Agreement warrant, which replaced the European Arrest Warrant for the UK) and would be aided by Eurojust in this (assuming the UK Special Forces found their way back home, and weren’t arrested in the Netherlands). Since it is unlikely the UK would extradite the Special Forces, this could have invalidated the entire Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which as we all know was only obtained after particularly long and difficult negotiations. So again, it is no longer about bilateral relations but about multilateral ones, and these are always more complicated.

All in all, it is a good thing that this idea to get the vaccines by force stayed just that - merely an idea. To be thrown on the pile of invasion plans that include Belgian’s plan to invade the Netherlands in 1854, and the plan of the United States in 2002 to free any US or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court, located in The Hague, by any means necessary (including military action). Although come to think of it, the American Service-Members' Protection Act was technically never rescinded, nor did it expire. It wouldn’t be that bad of an idea to at least keep an eye out.