The Guardian-Rafael Behr
On the Covid vaccine, compromise is possible. But relations are on a downward spiral and the damage will be lasting
‘What comes across to Tory ministers as a vendetta is actually something much less attentive. It is being a ‘third country’.’ Photograph: Bob Edme/AP
The pandemic is landing well-aimed punches on the already bruised relationship between Britain and the European Union. A dispute over vaccine supplies threatens to bring blunt instruments of trade war down on delicate national feelings. Not in the darkest hours of Brexit negotiations did either side imagine that supply-chain management would so quickly become a matter of life and death.
At a summit later this week, European leaders will discuss a possible ban on exports to the UK from an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands. There is frustration in Brussels that millions of vaccine doses have gone overseas (mostly Pfizer ones) and none have come over in return. The UK responds that it cannot be blamed for moving earlier, signing better contracts and generally getting its immunising act together faster.
Tory MPs say Brussels is lashing out in jealousy. Vaccination is something Boris Johnson’s government is doing well, and the EU is floundering. That has less to do with Brexit than is claimed by triumphant ministers, but as propaganda the point is irresistible: there is nothing else to trumpet as a benefit of detachment from the continent, and winning the vaccination race resonates with voters grateful for jabs.
UK politicians overestimate how much time is spent in Brussels thinking about Brexit. The peak of trauma and caring came immediately after the referendum. There was a phase of anxiety that the separatist impulse might be contagious. That passed when Westminster curled itself into a writhing ball, unable to digest the reality of what the electorate had ordered. No one who saw that from inside the EU fancied a portion of what Britain was having.
What comes across to Tory ministers as a vendetta is actually something much less attentive. It is being a “third country” – the legal designation of an external state whose needs are always subordinate to the collective interests of the bloc. At Brussels summits, Britain’s third-country status is more relevant than its G7 economy, its permanent seat on the UN security council and its nuclear arsenal. London isn’t used to thinking of itself as junior to Ljubljana in EU affairs, but that is what Brexit means.
Specifically, it is Johnson’s Brexit. He pulped the chapters in Theresa May’s deal that would have made good on her pledge of a “deep and special partnership”. The adjustment was more than tonal. It was an ideological choice with immediate consequences: rivalry over alignment, competition before cooperation. Those priorities are baked into Johnson’s trade deal. Diplomatic bridges were burned and back channels blocked to make a point about regulatory freedom.
Leavers always exaggerate the UK’s reach as a solo global trader, but the country’s disruptive potential as a commercial rival parked off the French coast is real enough. That is why Brussels drove such a hard bargain on single-market access. In terms of size, Britain is in the sour spot relative to the EU: too small to be an equal, too big to be a client; not powerful enough to assert its will in trade negotiations but hefty enough to cause trouble.
That is a blueprint for relations on a downward spiral, which neither side wants or knows how to avert. Johnson has called for a cooperative front against a third Covid wave. Many EU national leaders are not sold on the Commission’s threat of a vaccine export ban. Compromise on AstraZeneca is available. But in the longer term, the tensions are structural and hard to overcome when all reserves of trust are spent.
Europeans have learned to disregard what Johnson says and focus on what he does. If he were serious about a cooperative spirit he would not, for example, be refusing to apply the full terms of the withdrawal agreement in Northern Ireland. Reliable partners do not sign treaties with their fingers crossed. If the British prime minister valued respectful dialogue, he would not have refused full diplomatic status to the EU’s ambassador.
Most EU governments want a closer relationship with Britain. Some have economic motives. Others, notably eastern members with Russian sabres rattling at their borders, value the UK’s defence and security capabilities. But none will put relations with a third country – not even an old friend – ahead of internal EU relations.
And since there is no prospect of pro-Europeans staging a comeback at Westminster, the default setting is to treat Britain as a problem to be contained, not a partner to be consulted. Ministers resent that label because they see themselves as running a big country that matters, but the Tory benches are not stocked with people who would know how to begin rebuilding influence in Brussels.
Brexit was a closed chapter for many Europeans when Britain was still bickering over whether it should go ahead. There were bigger and more urgent challenges even before the pandemic made everything harder: internal tensions over budgets and fiscal transfers; moral quandaries over the rule of law in rogue members that are hollowing out their democracies; strategic dilemmas facing a new superpower rivalry between the US and China; migration control; the climate emergency.
Britain may yet claim a stake in many of those conversations, but it has forfeited its place at the table. That is a loss on both sides of the Channel. Many smaller EU members used to rely on the UK, as one of the bloc’s top three heavy-hitters, to make the case for financial prudence and respect for national differentiation. Britain was the pre-eminent non-eurozone member and an internal counterweight to federalising and centralising impulses. Removing that voice inevitably alters the character of the project.
British diplomats and officials were admired for bringing pragmatism and rational scepticism to conversations where there would otherwise have been a bit too much integrationist theology. That is partly why Brexit came as such a shock. How could a nation of sceptics be so credulous as to swallow leave-campaign fictions? How could a pragmatic people submit to something so flagrantly impractical?
The EU was quick to see that Brexit was a lose-lose proposition, but the cost to Britain was obviously greater and easier to count in terms of trade and influence. The damage done to the European project is more subtle and insidious. It is a slow burn.
Grief at the separation was overtaken by frustration and impatience during the bungled exit process. Relief at finalising the divorce and the need to get on with other things has meant deferring the audit of what the EU will miss. No one is measuring the UK-shaped hole in Europe.
On that score, Johnson’s consequential victory was not the defeat of enthusiastic pro-Europeans, who had not been a dominant cultural force, but the annihilation of rational Eurosceptics. It was the banishment of moderate Tories and the scorching of earth beneath anyone who could see flaws in the EU but wanted to address them from the inside, because membership still served the national interest. The extinction of that tribe is a tragedy for British politics, but it is also a loss to the rest of Europe. And the cost has yet to be counted.
- Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist