Nick Tyrone

The EU vaccine debacle poses a dilemma for Remainers like me

The EU vaccine debacle poses a dilemma for Remainers like me
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There is no question about it, at least if you want to evaluate things objectively: the UK has handled Covid vaccine rollout well (at least so far) and the EU has dealt with it badly. For a Remainer like me, this raises a difficult question: does this prove that Brexit was a good idea after all?

Compared to the EU27, the UK has been able to act nimbly in vaccine negotiations. While Brussels has been held up by various delays and supply issues, these have not affected the UK. This is thanks in large part to the fact that its contract with AstraZeneca was signed three months before the EU vaccine deal.

The UK also took a gamble, betting on a vaccine that had not yet passed clinical trials. Yet in the context of the cost of the various restrictions brought in to curb the spread of Covid-19, this seemed like a wise move at the time, and an ever smarter one with hindsight.

It's helpful, perhaps, to employ an analogy here: the EU appears to be like a large lorry and post-Brexit Britain a motorbike; being the smaller, more mobile vehicle has allowed Britain to act quickly, weaving in and out of traffic, while the behemoth EU has been left behind, unable to move. It will get there. Eventually.

Even for someone like me who is sceptical about Brexit, it isn't spurious is to say that being outside of the EU has forced the UK to think for itself in a way it probably would not have done otherwise. During the pandemic, this has had clear and tangible benefits: it seems to have led to the British government making a series of better decisions than EU officials made on the same questions. The UK has at the very least clearly benefited from not having to wait to make decisions in line with other countries.

If Britain has taken the initiative, the EU has adopted a more traditional, laid-back approach. This is fine in normal times, but not during a pandemic. And now, the EU is paying the price, even if it is still trying to blame everyone apart from itself for what is unfolding.

Of course, this isn't to say the UK has handled things perfectly. Britain's grim Covid death toll, which passed 100,000 this week, puts paid to that idea. And on PPE procurement, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the EU was ahead of the game compared to the UK, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. It benefited from its size in that instance, something a post-Brexit Britain needs to be mindful of.

Some 'rejoiners' will point to these and other failings by the UK as a way of explaining why this shows Brexit was not the right move. Meanwhile, some Brexiteers will want to say that the vaccine roll out is proof Brexit is justified. I think it’s more complicated than that. There are ways in which the flaws of Brexit have been exposed: in Northern Ireland, for example, discontent with what is unfolding is simmering.

Perhaps it might also be right to say that a pandemic is a unique event that tells you little about how Britain will function in a post-Brexit world once normal times resume. That sounds more plausible, but, again, I'm not entirely sure that's right: actually, this whole episode is surely instructive as to the pros and cons of living with the post-Brexit settlement arrived at by Boris Johnson.

In short, I think the vaccine rollout demonstrates at least one benefit of Brexit. Being able to be nimble is sometimes a huge bonus. Yet I'd still stop short of reaching the conclusion that this automatically proves the wisdom of Brexit. There are plenty of challenges ahead, not least in the growing tensions with China, where being in a bigger block like the EU will surely have its benefits. 

It also seems clear that the Biden administration doesn’t want to give Brexit Britain a better deal than the EU. Yes, being able to respond quickly during a health emergency has its upsides. But being able to trade on positive terms with the rest of the world is extremely important too. Post-Brexit Britain remains a long way from proving that it will be able to do so.

Only a partisan rejoiner would deny that Britain's vaccination programme is a victory for the UK outside of the EU; yet only a partisan Brexiteer would blind themselves to the downsides of the current post-Brexit arrangement, thinking the vaccine rollout papers over all faults. As ever, each side will see things their own way.