SINCE BECOMING prime minister in July 2019, Boris Johnson has often referred to EU countries as “our friends and partners”. Many of his fans believed that, once Brexit was done, a more co-operative relationship between the two would be possible. Even those who criticised Mr Johnson’s December trade deal for its thinness hoped closer collaboration on issues ranging from the environment to foreign policy would allow Britain and the EU to build on it. Yet three months on, the relationship seems scratchier than ever.
The year began badly with bigger barriers to trade than many exporters had expected. Covid-19 and stockpiling in the run-up to Brexit make the figures harder to analyse. But in January goods exports to the EU were down by over 40% from December, whereas they rose marginally to non-EU markets. For fish and shellfish, exports fell by a massive 83%; for food and drink, by 75%. Services exports are also likely to have dived.
Covid-19 vaccine wars now cast another shadow. For much of 2020 the story was of Britain’s slower response than the EU‘s to the pandemic. This year it has turned into one of British nimbleness in rolling out vaccines, against the EU’s woeful sluggishness. Indeed, many Brexiteers trumpet this as proof that they were right to want to leave the bloc.
The government has been careful not to crow over its success with vaccines, and has shown restraint in the face of the EU’s vaccine nationalism. France’s Emmanuel Macron cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish firm, and a groundless scare over blood clots, which encouraged vaccine resistance, led many European countries briefly to suspend its use. At the same time, EU leaders complained about AstraZeneca’s failure to deliver contracted doses. The European Commission is now taking powers to control vaccine exports, including to Britain; though on March 24th, in an attempt to defuse the row, the two sides issued a joint statement saying they were working together to create a “win-win situation”.
Differences over vaccines may be resolved more easily than those over Northern Ireland. Under the Northern Ireland protocol that is included in Britain’s withdrawal treaty with the EU, the province remains in effect part of the European single market and customs union. Although Mr Johnson has often denied it, this necessarily entails border and customs controls for goods moving between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom. The resulting obstacles have hindered trade between the two, notably of anything that falls under the regulations covering food, drink and plants, and are threatening the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Unionists, including Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, hate the protocol because the border in the Irish Sea widens the gap between these two parts of the United Kingdom. They want it scrapped. But if the protocol went, a hard border would be needed between north and south to protect the single market. Not only would this be near-impossible to police; it would also antagonise republicans, who would dislike the land border as much as unionists dislike the sea border.
The government remains keen to soften the harshest effects of the protocol. But negotiations in the joint committee supervising it have faltered since Lord Frost, who has replaced Michael Gove as British minister in charge, unilaterally extended grace periods for the application of some controls. The EU has initiated legal action against Britain for this apparent breach of the withdrawal treaty, which follows one first proposed in the internal market bill last September. Lord Frost retorts that the EU itself briefly considered breaching the treaty over vaccine exports in January. With such cavalier behaviour on both sides, trust is in short supply.
One possible solution to the Northern Ireland conundrum would be for Britain to align formally with the EU’s veterinary and food-safety standards, thus minimising checks on food, drink and plants travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while helping British exports to the EU. Simon Hoare, Tory chairman of the Commons Northern Ireland committee, claims it would solve 80% of the regulatory problems associated with the protocol, but the government is reluctant, partly because of its instinctive aversion to red tape and partly because it thinks that accepting EU food standards would scupper the chances of a free-trade deal with America. Yet if it does not come up with a solution, a US trade deal is scuppered anyway: President Joe Biden and Congress are clear that any breach of the Northern Ireland protocol would kill it.
Inevitably, in the wake of Brexit, there are other niggles. The European Parliament is deferring its ratification of the December trade deal. Britain is refusing to accord full diplomatic status to the EU’s ambassador in London. Still, most Britons want to get on with their big neighbour. A poll this week by Ipsos MORI for the Brussels-based EU-UK forum found 78% of respondents in favour of close relations. However, only 41% expect them. The attitudes of both sides do not give much ground for hope.
The EU’s vaccine mess has made it pricklier. That will pass, but one of its main concerns will not: it believes that, if Brexit were seen as a success, it might encourage others to follow suit. That is a reasonable fear; but in Britain, its failure to take into account Northern Ireland’s particular characteristics looks insensitive.
Mr Johnson takes the view that, in the long term, loosening ties with a chronically slow-growing continent and looking instead across the Atlantic and to Asia is the best way of ensuring Britain’s future prosperity. In the meantime, keeping a greater distance also makes it easier to blame problems arising from Brexit on European red tape and protectionism. Those wanting a closer relationship across the channel are likely to be disappointed.■
All our stories relating to the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also listen to The Jab, our new podcast on the race between injections and infections, and find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus’s spread across Europe and America. For more coverage of matters relating specifically to Brexit, visit our Brexit hub.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Cross-channel conflict”