This week felt rather like witnessing one of those very messy celebrity breakdowns, as the EU made ever more desperate efforts to deflect the blame for its vaccine shambles. If Ursula von der Leyen had shaved her head and attacked a car with an umbrella, it would have been a more reassuring outcome than the chaotic lashing out at Northern Ireland that actually ensued.
We at BfB have long argued that in times of crisis, it is better to rely on the flexible and democratically accountable nation state than opaque supranationalism. But we could never have expected the EU to make this point for us in such a powerful, public way. After insisting on taking full control of the European bloc’s vaccine procurement programme, the European Commission has been slow and lumbering in its efforts to secure and distribute vaccines. One of the most telling details of events this week is the fact that the EU signed its contract with AstraZeneca three months later than the equivalent British deal.
Having found itself in a deep hole, the EU has continued digging at a rate that threatens to open a new trade route to Australia any day. First, they blamed AstraZeneca, citing legal claims to British vaccines which proved to be without foundation. Then they moved to ban vaccines manufactured in the EU from being exported to the rest of the world, in a breach of numerous contracts worldwide.
Finally – and most shockingly – the EU began the process of blocking trade with Northern Ireland by triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Though the EU has now backtracked on this decision after a swift backlash in the UK and Ireland, it cannot take back the contempt it has shown for the delicate political situation in Ireland. Its bad faith deployment of the Protocol calls the mechanism into question, just weeks after the Brexit deal was signed.
The UK government, meanwhile, has remained calm, resisting the urge to say ‘we told you so’ and emphasising that a successful resolution to the Covid crisis will require international cooperation. Britain no longer needs to play the EU’s games. The success of our vaccine programme shows, rather than tells, the advantages of self-government.
In other news, the application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) marks a new beginning for UK trade. If the USA renews Obama’s intention to join and Korea pursues its interest, this fast growing trade bloc will account for over a quarter of UK trade. Already with six Commonwealth members the CPTPP will reorient UK trade towards the English-speaking world.
This week, BfB co-editor Graham Gudgin has written an article on ‘What the polls really tell us about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union’ for CapX, noting that support for a united Ireland is likely to be a lot lower than many are claiming.
Meanwhile, our other co-editor Robert Tombs’s new book, This Sovereign Isle: Britain in and out of Europe, which places Brexit in historical context, continues to be reviewed across the press. This week’s batch include a very favourable judgment from Entertainment Focus. Two leading Remainer commentators, Ferdinand Mount and Fintan O’Toole, reviewed the book in the Financial Times and the Guardian respectively, putting up a defence of EU membership. Readers can judge their success for themselves.
Robert has also discussed his book on Times Radio and on a Reaction podcast. You can now watch Robert taking part in a discussion of Brexit and identity (conducted in English) as part of the French Institute’s Nuit des Idée too.
Beyond Brexit, Robert discussed the University of Leicester’s worrying decision to remove all pre-1500 authors from its English Literature undergraduate degree with The Daily Mail.
On the website this week
Cross-Channel threats, by Briefings for Britain
If anyone hoped that signing a ‘deal’ with the UK would lead the EU into a period of calm and friendly cooperation with a former member state, they will have been rapidly disabused. There are deplorable signs that some in the EU have not given up on their policy of making Brexit as painful as possible, even if they also inflict pain on their own citizens. Here, we translate and analyse an open letter recently published in France’s leading newspaper and signed by important members of France’s political elite. The letter expresses the clear intention of hampering Britain’s trade exports.
“Not for the first time, sad to say, French politicians are willing to use fake health scares for their own political purposes.”
COVID: The “Angel Maker” of Brussels, by Mathew D. Rose and David Shirreff
If there is one thing EU citizens deserve after Covid, it is justice, especially after the complete failure of its political class in this crisis. Mathew D. Rose and David Shirreff, journalists at Brave New Europe, investigate Ursula von der Leyen’s less than impressive political record in Germany and the catalogue of errors she has already overseen as President of the European Commission.
“When the dust settles and there are calls for von der Leyen’s resignation, it is critical that this is accompanied with a criminal investigation.”
Can the Northern Ireland Protocol survive the EU vaccine fiasco? By Briefings for Britain
The European Commission, several prominent national politicians, and some European institutions have all disgraced themselves over access to Covid vaccines. There will surely be consequences for the future of the EU, but it is too early to predict what these will be. The UK Government has maintained a commendable sang-froid and responded in a diplomatic and dignified way to EU provocation. Nonetheless, the EU’s unilateral abrogation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in an unrelated dispute affords the British government the opportunity to reform the most troublesome aspects of the Protocol.
“Completely unexpectedly, this very tangible issue – which has a grave impact on everyday life on both sides of the Irish border – has demonstrated to a sceptical public in Northern Ireland the advantages of a nimble nation state over the ponderous legalism of the multinational EU.”
The Green Shoots of Truth Slowly Emerge, by Alex Starling
Has all the effort we have expended here in the UK on lockdowns, track & trace, school closures and the testing of asymptomatic people, have been in vain? Sweden, despite all the criticism, seems to have done better both in mortality and of course in collateral damage. This is an uncomfortable truth for lockdown proponents of all stripes.
“‘Average annual death toll in Sweden is not extraordinarily out of line, noting the particularly low rate of mortality in 2019, something that all countries should be aspiring to.”
Key points this week
VAT & Import Charges
Perhaps frustrated by the government’s substantial comparative success on the vaccination front compared to EU peers, certain Remain-leaning outlets have been highlighting customs issues faced by British consumers and businesses, including lame-sounding headlines about an ‘unseen world’ of issues.
As far as consumers are concerned, some have experienced large additional costs on top of the purchase price. To some extent, such ‘additional charges’ for customs may be the result of retailers and shippers’ sharp practice, but it also reflects the fact that European goods sold for above £135 are now liable for Import VAT paid by consumers at the point of reception (this does not affect business to business sales).
More generally, the EU VAT scheme is a perennial source of tax evasion, given the complexity of working out where VAT ought to be paid within the single market. Indeed, many of the online sales referenced in these articles did not properly charge VAT pre-Brexit in the first place. The European Commission estimated that EU member states in aggregate lost some €140bn in revenue to VAT fraud in 2018. Moreover, the extra costs of delivery, paperwork and so on are likely to be temporary, as businesses evolve more efficient ways of dealing with the burden of customs through (as we’ve argued before).
As for the other side of the equation, the negative bias of media reporting is informative. On the one hand, British companies’ setting up subsidiaries in the EU is presented as a loss for British industry. On the other, when small EU firms no longer export to the UK because of customs difficulties, this is presented as restricting British consumers – rather than as a problem for EU business which the Commission has an incentive to resolve, and an opportunity for British businesses to supply more of their home market.
The elephant in the room, however, is that Britain is a net importer from the EU – meaning that European businesses, on average, are more likely to set up British subsidiaries than British firms will in Europe, once lingering uncertainty around COVID, vaccine deliveries and the future relationship is resolved.
Vaccine Feints and Jabs Short
Readers of Briefings for Britain can hardly have missed the ongoing vaccine disputes between the EU and Astra Zeneca, the EU and Britain, and indeed the EU and the rest of the world. At time of writing these may be simmering down, though to write in such times is inevitably to offer a hostage to fortune. There have been nonetheless a number of bogus claims over the week that are worth quickly refuting.
Firstly, there were attacks on Astra Zeneca’s vaccine itself. The German press had claimed that the vaccine should not be given to the old, while President Macron himself has played down its effectiveness, in astonishingly irresponsible comments, given to high level of suspicion of all vaccines in France. These claims, however, are simply untrue – if there was a shred of credibility to them, the European Medicines Agency would not have approved the vaccine for public use on Friday. Neither would the Commission be so keen to obtain it. Such accusations are motivated instead by animosity towards Astra Zeneca, born of embarrassment at the European Commission’s tardy, miserly and incompetent handling of the vaccination programme.
Secondly, there are the Commission’s risible claims that it is entitled to a share of vaccines produced in Britain as a result of its contract, obediently repeated by long excerpts in the press. Against this, the ‘best reasonable efforts’ provision in the contract clearly applies – the ‘best effort’ for the company in this case being to supply the government which put more money into vaccine R&D than the EU-27 combined, made its order three months earlier, and houses half of its production plants. The threats of nationalisation made by the EU only reinforce the fundamentally bullying character of this relation, and will only drive pharmaceutical companies from the EU to Britain’s profit.
Thirdly, there are obfuscations and equivocations around the vaccine export prohibition announced on Friday. Though even staunch Remainers have expressed disapproval of the Commission’s Europe First policy, there have been some attempts to defend the EU’s conduct. In the case of Sky News correspondant Adam Parsons this descended to semantics worthy of Scholastics. Parsons thus tried to argue that this was merely about tracking vaccine movements, rather than an obvious heavy-handed threat to UK supplies.
Key Points is compiled by a Cambridge PhD student.
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How you can help
There is much about Brexit still to be decided. Our MPs listen to their constituents. Do continue to send them links to our articles, especially on matters relevant to your constituency – for example, in rural areas, articles on the threat to British agriculture. Alternatively, make an appointment to speak to them at their next surgery. Let them know what you want post-Brexit Britain to look like.
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An Oxbridge PhD Student
Dr Graham Gudgin
Economist, Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School University of Cambridge
Professor Robert Tombs
Emeritus Professor of French History, University of Cambridge