Like some divorced couples, Britain and the European Union are struggling to adjust to their rancorous separation. But the former partners appear to be picking fights with each other, which isn’t helping them forge an amicable post-breakup relationship, say analysts.
Since Britain exited the bloc, the pair have seldom paused in sniping at each other — rebukes that are then amplified by the media on both sides of the English Channel, heightening the stakes and tempers. British newspapers have been joyously playing up Britain’s faster rollout of coronavirus vaccines, contrasting its quicker tempo with the EU’s tardy authorization of vaccines and sluggish administering of jabs.
Britain’s vaccine campaign has delivered at least one shot to about half the adults in the country; the EU has struggled to inoculate 10% of its adult population, and there are mounting doubts that the bloc will reach its goal of inoculating 70% of the population by September, which would have serious economic repercussions for the bloc.
A frustrated European Commission midweek announced it is considering banning vaccine exports, which appears largely aimed at Britain, prompting the British foreign minister, Dominic Raab, to accuse the EU of acting like a dictatorship and engaging in the kind of brinksmanship more often associated with less democratic countries.
“Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation. It is normally what the UK and EU team up with (each other) to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship,” Rabb said.
A vaccine export ban would affect Britain, which is getting about 40% of its doses from EU-based factories.
Britain’s tabloid newspapers reacted with fury. The Daily Express headlined its front page: “PROOF…If YOU NEED IT! EU WILL NEVER LET GO.” The front page of the Metro newspaper featured European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with the tag: “WE’LL GRAB YOUR JABS.”
Vaccine rivalry aside, relations between Britain and the EU are deteriorating fast with both sides alleging the other is acting in bad faith in observing, or not, Brexit and trade agreements struck just months ago.
This week, the EU headed to court in a squabble over a complicated post-Brexit protocol governing trade arrangements between Britain and British-ruled Northern Ireland, which under the terms of the divorce agreement remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.
Brussels says Britain has breached the agreement by unilaterally deciding to delay customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, as well as health inspections and certificates for food and livestock shipments. Those checks were agreed to avoid imposing a so-called “hard border” between the two halves of the island of Ireland, which it was feared would spark renewed violence and undermine a U.S.-brokered peace process that ended more than four decades of sectarian strife.
But the plan has been disruptive, led to food shortages in Northern Ireland’s supermarkets and impacted adversely the province’s farmers. And it infuriated pro-British “loyalist” paramilitaries, who announced earlier this month they would be withdrawing from the 1996 Good Friday Peace agreement until the Brexit protocol was abandoned. Ominously, the British government listed in a security review published this week Northern Ireland-related violence as among the possible future terrorist threats in the coming months and years.
EU officials have voiced anger over the unilateral decision to delay the agreed checks and inspections, saying they were blindsided by London. They say the action short-circuited negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise over the customs checks. They called on London to re-enter bilateral consultations “in order to reach a mutually agreed solution as quickly as possible.”
In a statement, the European Commission said, “The UK must stop acting unilaterally and stop violating the rules it has signed up to…this kind of unilateral action that we see from the UK, does not build trust.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed the idea that Britain and the EU seem caught in a never-ending cycle of escalating tensions, saying he was sure “that with a bit of goodwill and common sense that all these technical problems are imminently solvable.” When Britain finally signed a post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels last year, he said it would herald a new fraternal era between his country and the EU, promising Britain would become the “best friend and ally the EU could have.”
But Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said the EU is “negotiating with a partner it simply can't trust.” And Northern Ireland is just one of the issues on which London and Brussels have been clashing — with disputes flaring over allowing Britain-based banks to conduct business in the EU and over London’s decision to withhold full diplomatic status from the EU envoy on the grounds ambassadors must come from sovereign countries.
Britain’s messy departure from the EU, which saw more than four years of bruising and sometimes petty haggling, had already left Britain’s relations with its European neighbors in tatters. And inoculation rivalry isn’t helping to calm residual ill-feeling.
The Johnson government — and Brexit-favoring politicians — have pointed to the speed with which Britain’s medical regulator approved coronavirus vaccines, allowing a swifter rollout than in any other large country, as an example of why it was beneficial to leave the EU. They have also questioned the abrupt decision by 17 EU member states to pause using a British developed and manufactured vaccine, AstraZeneca, on grounds it may be unsafe, a fear dismissed by Europe’s medicines regulator and the World Health Organization.
The EU’s off-and-on doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine have prompted British accusations that EU states such as France and Germany bear a grudge toward Britain because of Brexit. They say the EU seems determined to question any post-Brexit British success.
Midweek, Johnson’s former chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, told a British parliamentary panel, “Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels married with its appalling bureaucracy in its insane decisions over warnings over the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
EU leaders dismiss British accusations that the EU bears a grudge or that the British government is proving more competent in its handling of the pandemic. They suggest that Britain has been loading the vaccine dice by grabbing more than its fair share of doses made by AstraZeneca at its British manufacturing facilities. AstraZeneca is a British-Swedish company and developed its vaccine with Britain’s University of Oxford.
Last week, Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU’s envoy to Britain, sought to calm tempers. “I think we need to make an effort to change the mindset and give up on trying to score points on disputes of the past and focus ourselves on doing what we can do in making the most out of the agreements that we made,” he told reporters.
But amid talk of a trade war between Britain and the EU — and unresolved disputes from financial services to fishing — the plea for calm seems to be falling on deaf ears. British lawmakers are already muttering that if the EU blocks vaccine exports, then the Johnson government should respond by prohibiting the export of the raw materials that Pfizer-BioNTech, the EU's current main supplier of vaccines, uses to manufacture its doses at plants on the European continent.