David Gauke: The UK, the EU, vaccines – and future relations. Here, jingoistic politicians. There, Trumpian ones. Bodes badly.

29 Jan

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Will the new, post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU run smoothly? Will the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) provide a foundation on which a closer relationship is constructed (albeit still much more distant than the one we had), or will it provide the means by which the UK diverges from the EU?

The first few weeks after the transition period have confirmed many of the predicted difficulties of a hard Brexit. Businesses have struggled with red tape and trade with the EU is much reduced.

Whatever the Prime Minister claimed, the TCA does not address non-tariff barriers in the same way as the Single Market, and the erection of trade barriers will have a long-term economic impact. Northern Ireland is adjusting to a border in the Irish Sea, and it must finally be occurring even to the DUP that campaigning for Brexit and against a deal that kept Northern Ireland and Great Britain closely aligned has not served the Union well.

Given the obvious problems of Brexit and that, by the time the transition period ended polls showed that a clear majority of the public thought the country had made a mistake in 2016 in voting to leave, one might expect that, over time, we would begin to move to a more collaborative relationship. The likelihood, however, is that we will go the other way.

There are a number of political reasons for this. Perhaps most importantly of all, the political imperative for the Conservative Party is to maintain the support of those Leave-voting Red Wallers who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.

This week saw the Conservative Group for Europe relaunched as the Conservative European Forum. The CEF’s Chairman, David Lidington, delivered a characteristically thoughtful, well-informed and pragmatic speech setting the case for building a constructive relationship with the EU.

I hope the Government follows his advice, but I fear it won’t. If the Government’s approach to the EU is thoughtful, pragmatic and constructive, this is not going to get the patriotic juices of Workington Man flowing. There needs to be rows, conflicts and Brussels-bashing from Boris Johnson whilst portraying Labour as the party of ‘rejoiners’. ‘Keep Brexit Done’ will be something we could hear a lot in 2024.

To nullify this risk, there is every sign that Keir Starmer will want the next general election to be about almost anything other than the EU. The most straightforward way for Labour to win more seats is to win back the Brexit-voting Red Wall.

The absence of much opposition from Labour to a hard Brexit position might create an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to articulate a pro-European one that will cut through to the public. But betting on a Lib Dem revival has not proved to be a profitable pursuit in recent years. In any event, pro-European votes have tended to be split amongst many parties and heavily concentrated in safe seats whilst Brexit votes are most efficiently distributed and, as long as Nigel Farage can be kept at bay, will vote Conservative.

The upshot of all this is that even, if the public continues to become more pro-European in the way that it has in the last five years (largely because of demography), the chances of an explicitly pro-European Government being elected in 2024 remain slim.

Nor should we discount the possibility that UK opinion becomes more hostile towards the EU in future. Even the day-to-day negotiations with the EU which we are now condemned to – endlessly having to make judgements as to how we balance ‘sovereignty’ with access to our most important market – can have a deleterious impact on how the EU is seen.

A bigger trading partner willing to leverage its strong negotiating position to protect its interests can be an unlovely sight, as the Swiss discovered after narrowly rejecting EU membership in 1992, since when support for joining the EU has fallen sharply.

Within weeks of the transition period coming to an end, we have faced more than the day-to-day challenges. The row between the European Commission and AstraZeneca is turning into a crisis that could have very serious implications for UK/EU relations.

Even before the recent difficulties with the AZ supplies, plenty of Brexit supporters were claiming that the UK’s success in rolling out the vaccine is a vindication of our departure from the EU. The reality is that at the relevant time, we were still required to comply with EU rules and everything we did on vaccines we could have done as EU members. Nonetheless, it is true to say that in these particular circumstances, going it alone has served us well. It is not surprising some are describing this as a benefit of Brexit.

The case, however, needs to be made that what worked in the very specific circumstances of finding vaccines in a pandemic applies elsewhere. It is not obvious that there is a read across from our approach to vaccines to other challenges we will face, not least because we are not yet capable of cloning Kate Bingham.

Not every decision that this country has taken during the pandemic has been quite so world-beating, and there is also a risk that we learn the wrong lessons from the vaccine issue and, in the pursuit of self-sufficiency in a whole host of areas, become increasingly protectionist.

But the immediate danger of protectionism comes from the EU in its export controls on vaccines. Understandably, EU citizens are concerned about the slow rollout of the vaccine and the response of the European Commission has been to panic, lash out and distract.

The news that AstraZeneca is unable to deliver the number of doses hoped for has resulted in demands that it diverts the product committed to the UK. Notwithstanding the statements made by EU Commissioners, the publication of the agreement between the EU and AZ reveals that the contractual basis of such demands is, at the very least, questionable.

So its next step is to control exports to the UK. Yesterday, this even involved triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol enabling the EU to block exports from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland.  This is supposed to be a “last resort” mechanism, but its use was premature, provocative and sets a precedent that will be cited by those unwilling to accept the consequences of the Protocol.  The Commission has now seen sense and backed off.

There is an argument that, if the EU is throwing its weight around in order to prioritise the interests of the citizens of member states, this suggests that it is a good idea to be a member state. However, it is an unattractive argument that is, at best, ‘right but repulsive’.

Medicine supplies rely on internationalism and interdependence, and vaccine nationalism will mean that we all end up as losers. The UK’s response to the strident language coming out of the EU has been strikingly mature and measured. On this issue, at least, it has wisely sought to de-escalate tensions.

Let us hope that this is what happens, that the behaviour of the EU is performative and that the practical implications of yesterday’s announcement are limited. But it might not be.

The fundamentals of the UK’s need for a constructive relationship with the EU have not changed. It was not in our national interest to leave the EU; it is in our interests to create a new, special relationship. Such an outcome is not inevitable but the Trumpian behaviour of the EU in recent days makes that task all the harder.