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10 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 11:01am

Europe’s vaccine crisis has revealed to the UK and Ireland the true nature of the European Union

The moment that Brexit appeared advantageous, Ireland became collateral damage in the EU’s need to cover its own vulnerability.

By Helen Thompson

Vaccine politics in Europe appears to have convinced even some of the most strident Remainers that there might conceivably be an upside to Brexit. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s refusal to take responsibility for the EU’s vaccine shortage is a graphic illustration of what happens when power is divorced from consent.

For the first time since the 2016 referendum, events have brought the EU back into focus in the UK. Both sides in the Brexit wars produced phantom EUs. Leavers cast it as imperial in intent yet also open to growth-maximising trade deals on its borders. Remainers idealised it as a symbol of cosmopolitanism, or as a regulatory superpower free from hard geopolitical choices.

The reality is more complicated. The EU is a confederation with some federal structures. But in the time of Covid-19, it must now act as if it is becoming something much more than this. Since it aspires to be a deeper, more integrated political entity, vaccine nationalism within the bloc would be devastating for these ambitions.

[See also: Europe isn’t working]

When the pandemic struck in 2020, the EU had nothing resembling health powers. In matters of life and death, it was not even a confederation. Consequently, a collective EU response to the pandemic was both a necessity and an extraordinary gamble. It entailed a huge shift in political authority, whereby the Commission now oversees vaccine procurement, yet member states are still left to organise vaccine administration.

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The jumble of political authority inside the EU – between member states and its institutions in Brussels – and how this relates to the eurozone, should have been central to the Brexit referendum. For two months, between April and June 2016, the country debated whether to Leave or Remain. But the real political question at stake was whether Britain’s style of EU membership, which included various opt-outs, could be sustained when the eurozone was crisis-ridden and in urgent need of reform. That this was the main issue should have been obvious.

The subsequent rupture between the EU and Britain over China that has emerged in the past year – where the EU has signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Beijing and Britain has taken a more confrontational stance – has made for geopolitical divisions between London and Berlin and Paris too.

British politicians should have paid greater attention to the EU’s relations with China and the rest of the world well before the Brexit referendum. The Hong Kong protests of 2014 were an early indication of how Britain was likely to diverge from states such as Germany over the best approach to China.

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[See also: Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU’s vaccines debacle]

Now, the European vaccine crisis is exposing the EU’s internal and external geopolitics even more vividly. If Britain were still inside the EU, would the Commission really have divided its first vaccine orders equally between the German company BioNTech, the French firm Sanofi, and British-Swedish AstraZeneca; and could the UK, as the crisis unfolded, have contemplated the EU asking Moscow for the Sputnik V vaccine?

For Ireland, the real EU – with its internal hierarchies of power as well as geopolitical problems relating to the UK – has re-entered national politics, too. The idealised EU, one that protects small member states and abhors borders, was nowhere to be seen when the Commission failed to notify the Irish government that it was planning to construct a vaccine border between the EU and the UK. Although the Commission dropped the idea hours after announcing it on 30 January, the message was clear to all in Ireland: in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, Northern Ireland was little more than leverage against Britain in the Brexit negotiations.

Northern Ireland is Britain’s primary geopolitical weakness, the place where the UK Union is under most long-term pressure. It was also the best means for keeping Britain tightly aligned with the EU’s single market and customs union. But the moment Brexit appeared advantageous, Ireland became collateral damage in the EU’s need to cover its own vulnerability.

For the EU, muddling through its internal fault lines may be the most prudent political option. But for Britain, the course of muddling along with it is exhausted, and probably was in 2016. As for Northern Ireland, the fallout from the Commission’s plan to invoke Article 16 of the post-Brexit deal to restrict vaccine exports suggests muddling through won’t work for much longer.

For the UK, the Covid crisis will force it to confront the real EU. One way of understanding the past few years in British politics is to see how ill-prepared anyone was for the fact that time was speeding up. David Cameron called the 2016 referendum to resolve a division within the Tory party. When he failed, both Leavers and Remainers conjured phantom EUs – an imperial one versus a cosmopolitan one – to avoid confronting the real EU. Even the more pragmatic arguments for Leave became overwhelmed by questions about identity, as if Britons could settle the future by resolving the past.

Britain could not leave without destabilising the Union, especially over Northern Ireland. But Britain’s domestic politics imploded because Leavers and Remainers failed to look at the EU as it really is and ask how it might change in an age of perpetual crisis. Instead, they focused on settling internal conflicts over history, culture and identity.

The UK is now back to where we were before the referendum in 2016: a largely Eurosceptic country inclined to opting out of common European initiatives that are difficult to influence; more united than divided by different degrees of Euroscepticism. What the EU becomes will work itself out, and the UK and Ireland will need open-eyed strategies for coping with the change. 

[See also: Which European countries are vaccinating their populations fastest?]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair