As one former Irish diplomat noted about Britain’s rush to claim national victory from an international success story, it clearly involves elements of insecurity and the “lack of national self-confidence that led to Brexit.” Yet, in the rush to criticize British chest-beating, a peculiar mirror image of this insecurity is presented.
Those around Johnson plainly believe that Brexit offers an opportunity to outcompete the EU not just in today’s industries but, perhaps more important, in the industries that haven’t been invented—and therefore haven’t been regulated—yet. What is less often acknowledged is that this belief—or fear—is shared on the continent. The prospect of a deregulated post-Brexit Britain outcompeting Europe is why the EU has demanded much tighter regulations to protect the “level playing field” with Britain than it has with any other country.
Read: The U.K.’s coronavirus ‘herd immunity’ debacle
One ambassador to the EU for a major European state told me recently of his fears that the EU was complacent, protectionist, and too quick to turn in on itself, convinced its own strength made it autonomous. This diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while he did not think Brexit was particularly clever or likely to be a success, the EU nevertheless needed to face up to some of the challenges it posed. For example, he said that the EU had very few universities ranked among the best in the world, and almost no technology innovation compared with its supposed trade rivals, the U.S. and China. He said his great fear was that the EU would essentially be left behind in the next industrial revolution, just as China was in the last.
Nicolas Bauquet, an associate director at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, told me the vaccine was a telling moment in the tussle between Britain and the EU over how best to protect sovereignty in a globalized world. France, like Britain, was concerned with its ability to act independently in the world, but had made a different bet, Bauquet said. “Britain has chosen to leave Europe to reclaim its sovereignty,” he told me. “France has decided to strengthen the EU to reclaim its sovereignty.”
Bauquet said French President Emmanuel Macron, who is spearheading moves to reform the EU in order to make Brussels more powerful and effective, was, in effect, betting that in the 21st century, being in a bloc of hundreds of millions of people was better than being among “dozens of millions,” like Britain. However, he said this bet depended on Europe itself being able to act decisively, which it was not able to currently. “It’s because of this, I think, that the choice Britain has made resonates here, even if most people do not agree with it,” he said. “We understand that in this world where there’s an absolute need to be agile and for this reason Europe can be a liability or an asset.”
The vaccine story, then, is a Brexit story and isn’t, at the same time. Britain is gambling on being quicker and better than the EU. In 2020, it was anything but—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be.