It’s hardly been the most encouraging of starts. Rather than settling down to make their new trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) work, the UK and EU have become embroiled in a series of rows over vaccines and the EU representative in London. These may scar relations for some time to come. More worryingly, both emanate from broader structural forces, meaning strained relations may be here to stay.
Like it or not, the two sides are condemned to work together. For one thing, the TCA ensures a continuation of negotiations between the EU and UK within the intricate institutional structure created to work out the details of its implementation. Meanwhile, the UK and the EU confront common threats and share vital interests. Effective cooperation is in the interests of both.
And yet relations are fraught. The British government fired the first shots by refusing to accord the new EU ambassador to London the same status as an ambassador from a state. Dominic Raab insisted the EU ambassador should be treated as the representative of an international organisation. The EU responded by cancelling meetings between officials and the UK’s new ambassador.
And then, of course, a furious row erupted over the AstraZeneca vaccine. EU sources said AstraZeneca would be able to supply only about a quarter of the 100m vaccines the EU was expecting by March. In response, the European commission announced a clampdown on vaccine exports, which included a provision for triggering article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol in order to prevent exports of vaccines from the Republic to Northern Ireland.
Article 16, which suspends the operation of the protocol, is considered a last-resort option. The EU swiftly U-turned, but the fallout was immediate. Arlene Foster of the DUP described the move as an “absolutely incredible act of hostility”. Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland secretary, branded the EU initiative as “an almost Trumpian act.”
Both episodes will continue to affect relations for some time to come. It is hard to see how the UK ambassador to the EU will manage to carry out his role as long as the government withholds full recognition from his EU counterpart in London. This is hardly ideal for relations between the two sides.
Meanwhile, the EU’s intemperate triggering of article 16 will have implications for the ongoing implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. For one thing, it has added fuel to unionist demands that the British government itself invoke article 16 to deal with the problems associated with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Tempting though it may be to see these as isolated incidents, there are deeper structural reasons why the two sides have slipped into a cycle of mutual recrimination.
For the EU, the UK is now a third country and competitor. As a result, the EU has adopted the same zero-sum approach to both vaccines and the recently completed trade negotiations. One of the major problems with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol has been the issue of checks on animal and plant products (what are known as sanitary and phytosanitary checks, or “SPS checks” in the jargon).
That Brussels was willing to give the UK a far less generous deal over SPS checks than it gave New Zealand was indicative of the EU’s new attitude towards the UK, which it sees as a geographically proximate economic competitor. Yet this insistence on relatively stringent checks between the UK and EU also extends to Britain and Northern Ireland, because the latter remains in the EU’s single market for goods.
And there are other reasons why the EU might adopt a confrontational approach. Although initial fears that member states might attempt to emulate Brexit have dissipated, EU leaders are still anxious to show domestic constituencies that Euroscepticism is no solution to the problems they face. They remain anxious, in other words, that Brexit does not come to be seen as a success. Attempts by British ministers to link their undoubted success in rolling out a national vaccination programme with the decision to leave the EU have hardly eased such concerns.
And European leaders have their own political concerns at home. It’s interesting to note that a senior British government figure attributed President Macron’s explosive remark about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which he claimed was almost ineffective for people over 65, to the “enormous political pressure” the French president is under. Marine Le Pen and Macron are polling neck and neck ahead of the 2022 presidential race. Strong defence of the national interest is an obvious tactic for Macron to adopt in the face of such a challenge.
Of course, politics is not absent on this side of the Channel. Boris Johnson triumphed in the 2019 general election by assembling what was in effect a Brexiter electoral coalition. That coalition is more united when it comes to values than it is on, say, economic policy.
In other words, while the prime minister’s MPs and their voters may be deeply divided over tax policy or the desirable level of national borrowing, spats with the EU unite them in delight and approval. As the former justice secretary David Gauke put it, “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.”
None of this is going to change. For some in the EU, securing wins over the UK will remain politically advantageous, as will the ability to highlight the negative impact of Brexit. Meanwhile, EU-bashing will allow Johnson to continue scoring political points with his own party and against his opponent Keir Starmer, whose own party is beset by tensions over Europe.
So while we may hope that the current crises can be overcome, we should not kid ourselves. There are good reasons to think that tension between the UK and the EU is not a passing phase, but the new normal.