The British are at a giant lead in the European vaccination classification. Finally, the hard-hit country – the absolute Covid death toll is higher than in Italy or Spain – sees an undeniable benefit from Brexit.
The United Kingdom began unabashedly with vaccinations as soon as possible and took state liability on the bargain. The EU countries, on the other hand, preferred the pharmaceutical variant of ‘look left, look right, look left again: cross over’. Not ideal when chased by a ferocious beast. London focused on the first vaccination, while the vaccine only protects optimally after two; the UK is not as high in the European ranking for two syringes. That gamble may also be justifiable, given the high price of a longer lockdown.
In addition to the sputtering vaccination campaigns on the continent, something else strengthens the British in their feeling of departure: the EU unexpectedly lost a moral trump card. The Northern Ireland border was briefly closed on January 29, 2021. ‘What? That was not allowed by you? ‘ Astonishment everywhere. For English commentators it was as if you could say to friends after a terrible divorce: you already knew that he was slow; now you also see what a scoundrel it is.
An educational incident. Here one serious crisis collided with another, Brexit with Covid. That had to happen in Northern Ireland, the weakest point in the British line, a tangle of historical, political and religious cleavages.
During the Brexit negotiation, the EU drove the English into their cage time and again, arguing that lasting peace in Northern Ireland (i.e. open trade between Northern Ireland and the EU member state of Ireland) trumped sovereign control over the border. A hard land border was out of the question, while the UK wanted to leave the internal market completely. Prime Minister May tripped over this obstacle. Her successor Johnson – his election victory at the end of 2019 saved him from a troublesome Northern Ireland coalition party – bluffed through it with a shaky Protocol, part of the divorce agreement. Now that Protocol suddenly turned out to be of little value.
Why this slip? Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was under severe pressure in her own Germany at the end of January due to failing vaccine purchases. She accused English pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca of contracting a contract, decided to ban an export and also wanted to close a Northern Ireland shortcut through which the company could get EU-produced vaccines in the UK.
In a fit of panic, almost without consulting anyone, von der Leyen ordered an emergency clause from the Northern Ireland Protocol to be invoked. The Prime Minister of Ireland rang the bell within hours. The swift rectification of the error did not soften the blunder; the memory remains. Anyone who suddenly has his pants on his ankles cannot say afterwards: I had it on again within five seconds!
In The New Statesman Academic Helen Thompson wrote that after years of ‘phantom debate’, thanks to the vaccine frontier, the British were finally seeing ‘the true nature’ of the EU again. Not the idealized forerunner of borders and protector of small member states that the Remainers of it, nor made the bureaucratic oppressor Leave-stories. Ireland was allowed to watch out, she insinuated: Brussels, Berlin and Paris throw small countries in front of the bus.
Her observation is partly correct. The EU experiences in the Covid pandemic that it must also protect citizens, for example with vaccines. That necessity can clash with unconditionally open borders, however painful that may be. In this tricky case, the decision went terribly wrong: closing a virtual vaccine smuggling path does not compensate for a loss of trust with your most important foreign partner.
Von der Leyen is allowed to draw two lessons. The first is to consult more widely, starting in her own institution. In The Guardian The French Brussels expert Jean Quatremer wrote this week about her almost exclusively German entourage, partly with her boss from Berlin. She urgently needs to break open that small circle.
Second, look ahead. The Commission will make a start on this this Wednesday, with a new vaccine strategy. Von der Leyen did not reveal it in his own country for the occasion, but in the French newspaper The echoes and to the Financial Times. The Commission no longer wants to just wait and buy, but actively assist pharmaceuticals in vaccine production and promote research against the virus mutants – the new danger.
Plus turn the page and start a new chapter. Hopefully Von der Leyen now realizes how intensely and how critically the audience is listening.
Luuk van Medelaar is a political philosopher, historian and professor of EU law (Leiden).
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next of February 17, 2021