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Why vaccine nationalism illustrates the inherent tension in UK-EU relations after Brexit

Andrew Glencross (Aston University)

It may be premature to say that Brexit has been good for UK public health, but the UK’s post-Brexit vaccine success has certainly been a shot in the arm for Boris Johnson and his government. A huge vaccine rollout programme has boosted the Prime Minister’s polling figures and caused consternation in EU capitals. The competing narratives about UK success and the EU’s – in the words of German tabloid Bild – vaccine debacle illustrate key dynamics of the new UK-EU relationship.

In matters of Brexit, all roads lead to sovereignty. The need to justify the benefits of UK regulatory autonomy seemed quite abstract prior to 2021, although not for want of trying. Brexiters talked a lot about agile regulation and the need to break free of a one-size-fits-all EU approach, yet were largely short of concrete examples. Now the UK’s vaccination juggernaut seemingly offers a vindication of all this rhetoric.

Digging below the surface of these claims, however, reveals a more complex story in which freedom from EU constraints is only part of the explanation. After all, the rate of vaccination across member states differs markedly in a way that cannot be attributed to the EU as they have received a common pool of vaccines according to population. Moreover, when the UK first stole a march in the vaccine race by granting a licence to Pfizer/Biontech in early December 2020, it was still bound by EU law under the Brexit transition period. The emergency authorization procedure used by the UK health regulator was available to all EU countries, with the caveat that this arrangement shifts legal liability for side effects from the company to the government in question. Hungary has in fact used this procedure to approve the use of the Russian Sputnik vaccine – the only EU member state to do so to date.

If anything, the divergence in approach for vaccine authorization lies in the UK and EU’s differing attitude towards risk management. As Zaki Laïdi has argued, the EU comes across in many policy areas as a risk averse power. By waiting for EU-wide licensing authorization by the European Medicines Agency, individual member states avoid being on the hook for damages in case of medical claims associated with vaccine use. This situation is analogous to the EU approach to banking reform after the financial crisis. There the aim was to shift the burden of risk for future bank bailouts from national governments to the bank sector as a whole via EU-wide legislation.

A pandemic emergency is no time for dithering and the Brexit-supporting UK press has made hay with the slower pace of the EU vaccine rollout as well as the time lag for pre-ordering from manufacturers. They make a stark contrast between the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce chair, venture capitalist Kate Bingham, and the Commission bureaucrats across the Channel. In tabloid-speak, this is rendered as tale of penny-pinching Brussels, focusing on driving down the price of vaccines – it appears the EU is paying less than the UK for jabs – without realising the value of speedy mass immunization.

On the surface, the EU’s centralized procurement approach does look clunkier than the UK model of securing multiple pre-orders from a wider range of manufacturers, including AstraZeneca. This criticism is harder to maintain when compared with the alternative option of a messy member state scramble for vaccines. Smaller and less wealthy member states would have been at the mercy of being outbid or outmanoeuvred by Europe’s dominant states, notably Germany, which alone constitutes the fourth largest pharmaceutical market globally.

The very real risk here was a repeat of the coordination problems seen at the beginning of the pandemic when France and Germany suddenly imposed export restrictions on Protective Personal Equipment (PPE) to other EU countries. The European Commission successfully intervened at the time to transform these unilateral measures into EU-wide export measures that also had to be revised to include EU candidate countries. Under this regulation, exports of five types of PPE were subject to export authorisation by national authorities (spectacles and visors, face shields, mouth-nose-protection equipment, protective garments and gloves). The worry was that without such measures the EU might not have sufficient stocks of PPE for its own needs; the restrictions, which were legally binding on the UK, were lifted by the end of May 2020. During this time, 95% of export licence requests were approved by national authorities within the EU.

Now the Commission, under immense pressure from national governments asking why the procurement process is so slow to yield results, is seeking to do something similar for vaccine exports in a way that potentially threatens supplies to the UK given that it is officially a third country. In a particularly clumsy move, Brussels published a plan to trigger an emergency clause in the Northern Ireland Protocol of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement to prevent vaccines reaching the UK via the soft border on the island of Ireland. A quick U-turn followed with Ursula von der Leyen also promising not to punish the UK by diverting vaccine supplies made in the EU.

What this unedifying bout of vaccine nationalism reveals is the inherent tension that characterizes the new EU-UK relationship. While it is facile to claim that Brexit itself is the reason for the UK’s success in vaccinating its population, the fact that this divergence is framed in this way is no coincidence. The politicians that interpreted the 2016 referendum as a mandate to leave the single market and the customs union need to highlight a Brexit dividend. For its part, the EU’s legal and political architecture is hard-wired to promote cooperation and consensus. When this approach proves ponderous, Brussels is prone to taking a defensive stance and those outside the club, like the UK, might pay the price. The politicisation of health security as a result of COVID-19 thus adds another complication to the already fraught post-Brexit EU–UK relationship.

Andrew Glencross is Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, Aston University; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute; and an Associate Editor at ECPR Press.

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