The dramatic and contested claims made by Meghan and Harry on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa dominated the news this week, as the Sussexes shared ‘their truth’ with the world.
The EU also had a go at sharing ‘their truth’ with the world, as Charles Michel, President of the EU Council, claimed that Britain had imposed an ‘outright ban’ on the export of vaccines made in the UK.
Unfortunately, Michel’s ‘truth’ clashed with something we at BfB like to call ‘the truth’. As British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab swiftly pointed out, the claim was ‘completely false’. The UK has imposed no such ban: it is the EU which banned shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia. This is not an issue on which ‘recollections may vary’.
It is not surprising that the EU is trying to point fingers at someone (anyone) else, as the scale of its vaccine fiasco becomes ever clearer. On the BfB website this week, we address the question of how many lives have been lost. Meanwhile, it looks like the UK will have the entire population vaccinated by June, a full two months ahead of the EU, an achievement predicted to save the country tens of billions of pounds.
Meanwhile, in a curious statement in the French parliament on March 3rd, Clemente Beaune, France’s EU Minister, said that “Don’t romanticise no-deal. It would have led to a breakdown and the disintegration of the European union, when we need a Europe which is solid for the long term”. If this had been remotely true surely the UK could have driven a harder bargain with the EU.
Subscribers might be interested in attending the book launch for BfB co-editor Robert Tombs’s ‘This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe’, organised by Policy Exchange this week. Robert will discuss his book alongside a range of eminent panelists, including Lord David Frost and Michael Gove. This online event with take place this Wednesday (17 March) at 4.30pm. Participants need to register via the Policy Exchange website.
On the website this week
EU disarray on vaccines. How many lives are being lost? By Harry Western and Graham Gudgin
It is now clear that vaccinations are saving lives in the Covid pandemic. The faster the rollout of vaccines the more lives are saved. This means of course that the late and slow rollout in the EU is costing many lives that could have been saved with a UK-style vaccination programme.
“Who could have predicted that the pandemic vaccines would provide an immediate and dramatic demonstration of the superiority of a nation state over a lumbering EU?”
More Thoughts from France, by Caroline Bell
We continue to report on the revealing debates on Brexit in the French Senate. Three things stand out: the cross-party consensus (so that we should not look forward to a future change of policy); the level of antagonism and worry concerning post-Brexit Britain; and acceptance that France needs a relationship with Britain. This underlines the risks and also the opportunities for the UK government.
“Jean-Francois Rapin: The Northern Ireland Protocol has avoided the worst but created new tensions. I fear that the European Commission threw oil onto the flames by invoking Article 16.”
State of play, by Rob Colls
So, five years into Brexit and one year into Covid what is the state of play? No British government has had anything more complex to deal with since the summer of 1940. Compared to what Johnson’s government has had to do over the past year Churchill’s task was the more straightforward. Yet Boris is still at the crease.
“Johnson started out losing the political Battle of the Care Homes but he appears to be winning the Great Patriotic Vaccine Counter-Offensive.”
The Demise of a Catalan Fairy Tale: a Democratic EU, by Chris Bambery
The first beneficiaries of Brexit were British Uber drivers, whose historical legal victory over the American platform corporation cannot be overturned by the anti-labour European Court of Justice. The next – let us oversee the vaccination debacle in the EU costing thousands of EU lives – may be Catalan politicians seeking political asylum from the EU.
“Now Britain has left the EU it is no longer required to maintain the EU’s anti-democratic policies. Perhaps Puigdemont, Commin and Ponsati could seek political asylum there.”
Key points this week
Sovereignty at the Expense of Exports?
Readers might by this point be becoming bored of hearing about misconceptions about trade flows. Unfortunately, news – unlike trade, allegedly – is flowing all too freely. News outlets have focused on the publication of German trade figures, which show a year-on-year decrease January to January of 56% in British exports to Germany, and a decline of 29% in imports. And although Covid disruption has been cited, Brexit restrictions have fingered by many as a significant factor.
Certainly, isolated sectors have been hard-hit – fish and wider food exports in particular – by EU restrictions. Trade with the Republic of Ireland has also tanked, perhaps in connection with difficulties faced by UK hauliers wanting to carry goods for both Northern Ireland and the Republic. As we’ve argued before, until the government imposes its own checks (rather than further suspending them) and toughens up its stance on the Protocol there will be little or no incentive for the EU to compromise in any of these areas.
There are reasons to be cautious, however, about the more general picture of decline. To start with, disruptions from COVID and the frontloading of imports before January 1st played a substantial part in January’s lull. Another overlooked element is the strength of the pound – which rose from a low of £1.08 to the Euro mid-December to £1.13 by the end of January, hitting a year-long high of £1.17 by the middle of this month. While reflecting investor optimism about the vaccine rollout and aiding consumer purchasing power, this rise has a negative effect on exporters by increasing their prices.
More generally, the UK’s January trade data were released on Friday, and generally suggest a recovery toward previous levels by the beginning of February. Headlines were pessimistic in certain press quarters, reflecting the likely temporary fall in January goods trade with the EU. Yet the general trends are encouraging: a smaller GDP contraction than expected, the UK’s exports of services barely moving, and exports to non-EU countries increasing by 10%.
Needles at Dawn
It came as surprise when the UK was accused by Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, of imposing ‘an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.’ Challenged by Dominic Raab in a letter of protest, Michel refused to disavow his remarks, shifting the ground by arguing that Britain hadn’t exported any vaccines itself. The argument has been taken a stage further by the New York Times, which on Wednesday ran the headline ‘E.U. Exports Millions of Covid Vaccine Doses Despite Supply Crunch at Home’.
These reports, however, are disingenuous in attempting to paint the EU as a suffering saint, nobly exporting jabs at the expense of its own citizens. (This image would certainly surprise the people of Canada, Australia and Northern Ireland…) Although production of vaccines for export is taking place in EU territory, that doesn’t make it ‘EU’ production when it comes to the funding, research and manufacture of the jabs, which is substantially the work of private firms.
Likewise, and contrary to EU insinuations, British and other non-EU firms are involved in Pfizer’s supply chain. Production is hardly as EU-centric as Europe’s cheerleaders would suggest. And contrary to claims of UK selfishness, AstraZeneca’s vaccine was developed with UK taxpayer funds, and is now being rolled out at manufacturing centers across the world – not, as with Pfizer, solely from a single central production center in Europe.
The export of vaccines from the EU’s territory is the result of the bloc’s incompetence and tardiness in signing procurement contracts in an open market, and to provide support for research and manufacture as the UK has done. Indeed, unprovable insinuations of a hidden ban are merely designed to distract from this fact – as well as Italy’s heavy-handed restriction of vaccine exports to Australia, and the EU’s internal splits over the distribution of jabs. Unbelievably, the Commission’s steering board on this issue is cloaked in secrecy. Quite unlike other EU institutions, of course…
What’s more, it has recently emerged that, had the pandemic occurred in 2022, Northern Ireland would have been under the EU’s acquis for the production and distribution of medicines. This could have slowed or potentially inhibited the vaccine rollout. Although vaccines are technically a member-state competence, they have to be approved by the European Medicines Authority, and their import is subject its oversight. Given the political storm which enveloped the bloc’s relations AstraZeneca, and the EU’s willingness to use the Protocol as a weapon in this case, it‘s perfectly conceivable that Brussels would limit or seek to confiscate medicines going to NI in the event of another flare-up in relations.
A final point to cover is the frankly irresponsible encouragement of vaccine scepticism in some EU circles, which seems deliberately targeted at AstraZeneca. This is a particularly dangerous political game of distraction given historic levels of vaccine scepticism in certain European countries, and verges on the dangerous denial of a healthcare emergency for political convenience in France.
Key Points is compiled by a Cambridge PhD student.
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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