For a short time this week, it looked like the EU might not be responsible for the most shambolic aspects of the vaccine rollout, as the governments of seventeen European countries including France, Germany and Italy halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on the basis of specious claims about an increased risk of blood clots.
In fact, as the UK government was quick to point out, the numbers of cases of clotting reported were not at all out of line with that expected in the general population. Given that clotting is also a risk associated with Covid-19, the risks of the jab are far outweighed by its benefits. The only clots Europe should be worrying about are those who made the decision to pause the rollout of a lifesaving vaccine on the thinnest of evidence.
For a brief moment, the European Medical Authority made the EU’s institutions look like a voice of reason, announcing on the 16 March that it was “firmly convinced” that jab was more beneficial than dangerous. But the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was not going to allow the EU to play anything less than the main character in Europe’s vaccine farce. Before the dust had settled on clot-gate, she was back, with threats to ban the export of vaccines from the EU to the UK.
Any such move would require AstraZeneca to break its binding contractual commitments to the UK. The EU, which only negotiated a weaker ‘best efforts’ clause with the Anglo-Swedish company, has no legal case. We were warned, not least by Nick Clegg, that the EU could turn nasty over Brexit and so it has proved. As Daniel Hannan warns, we are now in a struggle with an opponent rather than co-operating with a neighbour who shares most of our western values.
Not having enough vaccines may not in fact be Europe’s biggest problem. The main challenge now is that of take up. Take the example of the French, a population known for its above-average vaccine scepticism even before the Covid vaccine rollout. First they were told that the AZ vaccine doesn’t work in over 65s, then that it should be reserved for over 55s only, then that it shouldn’t be used at all for fears of clotting, and now that it is absolutely fine. This is, in the words of Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, ‘completely crackers’. Europe’s political elite has only itself to blame for the increase in vaccine scepticism that has inevitably followed. If they had been less obsessed with the optics of a ‘united European response’, and with spiting the UK, they would not have ended up in such a mess. What an enormous shame.
The launch of BfB co-editor Robert Tombs’s new book, ‘This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe’, took place earlier this week, featuring an impressive cast including David Frost, Michael Gove, Peter Mandelson and Amber Rudd. Though Amber Rudd was surprised and indeed a little put out to find that Robert had written a pro-Brexit book, the conversation was good-natured, with constructive and thoughtful contributions from all involved. The event was recorded and is now available to watch on the Policy Exchange website.
Robert has also written a piece for UnHerd, ‘The populist spirit of the Paris Commune’, on the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Paris Commune. Robert discusses how the Communards – ‘people for whom Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were more inspiring than Censorship, Identity and Victimhood’ – might still inspire us today. Robert also discussed the Commune with the BBC.
Our other co-editor, Graham Gudgin spoke to US public radio about why the UK was right to oppose the Irish Protocol.
On the website this week
How worried should we be about the UK’s January trade slump? By Harry Western
UK trade with the EU slumped in January. Various factors appear to have contributed to this, including late 2020 stockpiling, firms avoiding moving goods due to fears of disruption, low demand due to Covid-19 and new barriers to trade which have especially hurt UK food exports. While the headline numbers look alarming, there is likely to be a significant recovery in trade volumes in the next couple of months as freight flows have already rebounded strongly from their January lows. Longer-term, a decline in the relative importance of the EU as a UK trade partner is likely, but the data so far don’t give us a strong steer on how large this decline will be.
“Based on the freight data, we are confident that UK-EU trade volumes will recover somewhat in February and March.”
Brexiteers who thought that we could leave the EU after 40 years of economic integration without disruption were unrealistic. Remainers who predicted economic catastrophe were guilty of wishful thinking. What is the situation now? A grass-roots investigation shows both problems and opportunities.
“Companies are adapting. Businesses that already export to countries outside the EU are used to dealing with multiple regulations.”
Britain After Brexit, by Robert Jackson
In his recent lecture to the South African Institute of International Affairs, former MP Robert Jackson undertook a wide-ranging, thoughtful, and essentially optimistic review of likely trends in a post-Brexit and post-Covid world. He thinks that ‘the mature region of the world economy which is most vulnerable to a catastrophic fall-out from such developments must surely be the European Union, with its increasingly baroque monetary union built upon only the shallowest of foundations’.
“As the fog of the Brexit wars begin to clear, it should become possible for both sides of the argument to begin to take a more measured and considered view of Britain’s prospects.”
Who is better off, North or South in Ireland? By Graham Gudgin
Those who bear ill-will to the UK like to bad-mouth Northern Ireland and wrongly suggest that it has a feeble economy propped up by British subsidies. In fact, the NI economy is quite competitive and support for public services under the generous UK-wide arrangements means that the people of NI enjoy higher living standards than in the Irish Republic. The low standards of the Republic are surprising given that it is world’s largest tax haven.
“Not surprisingly, Ireland’s flawed national accounts fool lots of people and organisations from the UN downward.”
Key points this week
Reading the Tea Leaves
Though we don’t normally cover opinion pieces in this rebuttal column, a recent piece by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian seemed notable both for the prominence of its writer and its synthesis of a large number of strands in the Remain argument. Though there are various arguments advanced that we’ve dealt with in other pieces, one in particular seemed worth addressing given that it’s cropped up elsewhere – the idea that voters are either pro- remain/rejoin, or that public opinion hasn’t changed (thus Toynbee).
Yet according to the most recent polling, the numbers have changed significantly, with leave/stay outside now commanding a narrow lead over remain/rejoin. Interestingly, this change has come at the expense of pro-European sentiment rather than the positive embrace of Brexit – leave/stay out only increased 3 points from 38% to 41%, where remain/rejoin plummeted 8 from 47% to 39%, with the remaining decrease sucked up by ‘would not vote’ and ‘don’t know’.
This in turn suggests interesting potential shifts in public opinion. Partly, some of this will simply be preference for the status quo – the last YouGov polls were taken during the transition period. Partly, too, it will be the temporary effect of a successful vaccine programme. But one suspects the movement towards ‘don’t know’ and ‘won’t vote’ may be more enduring. A sizeable portion of pro-EU sentiment was idealistic, nourished on a vision of the EU as a benevolent, liberal bloc working towards the noble goals of prosperity, harmony and unity.
There was always a tension between this vision and the line that Britain would be punished for leaving the EU, given many Remain supporters’ idealisation of the bloc’s strength. Yet it could be reconciled by seeing Britain (and particularly Brexit-voters) as deserving this misery, and by the natural human capacity for doublethink. As the Cambridge academic Helen Thompson has suggested, such doublethink is a more general feature of engagement with the EU, including on the Leave side and in other EU states.
In this context, the combination of base protectionism and incompetence the EU has displayed over the last few weeks weakens both sides of the paradox. The EU’s threats over vaccines make it seem pathetic when irreplaceable ingredients for European vaccine production come from British plants. Bans on exports to foreign countries, and reckless invocations of Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol, make it look mean. The UK’s refusal to openly threaten the EU in return only rubs salt in the wound.
These self-inflicted injuries to the EU’s standing here are more likely to be enduring than if the UK gains a temporary boost from vaccine success. Former Remainers may not be able to bring themselves to support Brexit in the polls, but the disillusionment of pro-European voices will ironically ease the ‘healing’ process Remainers used to trumpet. Repairing the damage from Europe’s side will take skillful PR, constructive engagement with the UK and a broader moral foreign policy. Thus far, Europe’s leaders seem incapable of delivering any of this.
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