The EU vaccine disaster has played into Boris Johnson’s hands

John Rentoul
·4-min read
<p>Boris Johnson visited a vaccine lab in Scotland on Thursday</p> (AP)

Boris Johnson visited a vaccine lab in Scotland on Thursday

(AP)

Not only are coronavirus vaccines a great British success story, but they are a great EU failure story, and that failure is a tectonic event that changes the landscape not just in Britain but across Europe.

One of the underappreciated facts of Britain leaving the EU, whatever we think of it in Britain, is that it was a disaster for the EU. For the past five years, EU leaders have been icily polite about it – “if you must” – but have tried to carry on as if nothing has changed. That is much harder now.

That is changing politics on the continent. The approval ratings for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany are on a steep downward slope. And it will change politics in the UK too. All this time one of the weaknesses of the Leavers’ case was their difficulty in spelling out the benefits of Brexit. Ending free movement of people and some abstractions about sovereignty were all that they could offer against the certain costs of unforgiving economics.

Those costs are still there, but the headlines about empty lorries travelling from Britain to the continent, about price rises and product unavailability, have all been swept aside by the vaccines crisis.

The question is no longer a technical one about whether Brexit made the UK’s head start on vaccines possible. Legally, it didn’t, in that any member state could have ordered and authorised vaccines as an emergency exception to EU law. Indeed, Hungary has taken advantage of this exception in the last few days to buy Russian and Chinese vaccines. But Hungary’s late decision only emphasises the political pressure on member states to respect “solidarity” and to work through the European Commission.

Watch: Boris Johnson ‘confident’ of vaccine supplies despite EU ‘toings and froings’

The question is now one of the commission’s competence. It was slow to start acquiring vaccines, placing its order with AstraZeneca three months after the UK did. And it has now drawn attention to its failure by issuing wild threats against the company, which were not backed up when it was forced to publish the contract (incompetence compounded by publishing an unredacted copy of the contract in error).

This was capped by last night’s farce, when the commission said it would suspend the EU-UK trade deal to close the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, only to backtrack when the Irish government, which had not been consulted, objected.

All of which has been accompanied by undignified commentary from EU political leaders, with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, sounding almost Trumpian in his unfounded claim that the AstraZeneca vaccine is “quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older”. Just as the fox in Aesop’s fable decided he didn’t want the grapes he couldn’t reach.

It is so unusual to see Boris Johnson on the high moral ground that it might take a while for our eyes to adjust. The prime minister who trashed the UK’s reputation by threatening to repudiate a treaty months after signing it has now been matched by the other side doing exactly the same thing, and with less justification. The prime minister of a country with one of the worst death tolls in the world, who used to be lectured on how the Germans could do test and trace because of their labs, has turned out to be the prime minister of a country that can do vaccines because of its labs.

Wisely, Johnson has stayed out of the dispute between the EU and AstraZeneca, confining himself yesterday to enquiring politely of Ursula von der Leyen what on earth was going on with the Irish border, just before the commission issued a statement backing down.

The EU vaccines disaster has tilted the balance of British politics in his favour. Keir Starmer, who thought the EU was such a good thing he wanted another referendum on it, will struggle harder to disown his past. Michel Barnier, the EU’s former negotiator, reminds us in an interview today that he knows Starmer well, and helpfully invites a future British government to “sovereignly, freely, choose to move closer to the single market through different models that remain available”.

Nicola Sturgeon, who is more explicit about the benefits of EU membership, got herself into a spot of bother this week when she seemed to threaten to publish confidential information about vaccine stocks against Johnson’s wishes.

Indeed, if Johnson remains calm it is hard to see how the EU’s difficulties – Jens Spahn, the German health minister, called it “the greatest crisis since the Second World War” – could rebound to his disadvantage. It would be bad for the country if EU leaders tried to punish the UK for its success, but all that would do for the prime minister would be to unite people behind him against an external threat.

It could be that post-Brexit politics is going to be different from what went before – and very different from what many Remainers expected.

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?