“This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain,” read the tweet, posted by Boris Johnson. Underneath, the prime minister was pictured staring resolutely into the camera, both thumbs up in the air. The date was January 2, 2020—11 months ago, but seemingly from a different world.
Surveying the scene in the last month of 2020, far from being a fantastic year, one in which Britain would unshackle itself from the European Union and chart a new path after years of Brexit weighing on its politics and society, it has been a horrible one in almost every way. In raw figures, the country fared worse than almost any other, suffering tens of thousands of deaths and significant economic pain. It spent more tackling the virus than many of its neighbors, implemented stricter shutdowns, and still lost more lives. At the very moment it was preparing to “take back control” from the EU, it appeared to have lost control of itself.
And yet, here we are, once again being told that the sun might—just might—be about to shine on Britain. Yesterday, it became the first country in the world to authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, with a national rollout beginning as early as next week. On top of this, a vaccine partly developed and tested in Britain has also showed promising results (though its data are now being questioned), while the country has quietly bought up a global stockpile that will cover more of its population than almost any other country’s.
But far from being a moment of national unity, the announcement of Britain’s rapid-fire vaccine authorization quickly morphed into another front in the never-ending war over Brexit. After one government minister tweeted that the vaccine authorization would prove, in time, to be the moment Britain “led humanity’s charge against this disease,” the German ambassador to Britain hit back, replying: “Why is it so difficult to recognize this important step forward as a great international effort and success.” From here, Britain’s bickering tribes joined the fight. Leavers claimed that Britain’s speedy approval of the vaccine was proof of the case for Brexit; Remainers pointed out the drug was made in part by a German company and will be produced in Belgium.
In one sense, the debate is as tiring as it is tedious. Britain is still governed by EU law, so the vaccine authorization has nothing to do with Brexit. EU member states have the power to follow London’s example, but have agreed to wait until the vaccine has been approved by their collective regulatory body. The EU criticized Britain’s decision, and the bloc’s regulator, the European Medicines Agency, said its process was more thorough, announcing that it would decide by December 29 whether to provisionally authorize the vaccine. Peter Liese, an EU lawmaker who is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, said Britain’s decision was “problematic” and urged EU member states not to follow suit.
At its heart, though, there is an interesting Brexit question for all sides to consider. Ultimately, Brexit is a bet that, outside the EU, Britain can better regulate its economy to become more competitive. In essence, Brexit was founded on the idea that, freed from having to take into account the economies and politics of 27 other countries, Britain can more quickly, more efficiently, and more effectively govern itself.
There are endless arguments suggesting that Britain has miscalculated—and horribly so. It has, in effect, made trading with its largest market harder and costlier while also giving up its seat at the table where the rules governing this market are made. This in turn has made Britain less useful to the U.S., its existential security partner and ally. Finally, the decision to pursue regulatory autonomy has created systemic tensions within the country itself, particularly with Northern Ireland, which has been stopped from having this regulatory freedom because of its land border with Ireland, as well as with Scotland, which did not want to leave the EU in the first place. In essence, Britain has taken quite the gamble without being certain what it might win, if anything.
But that doesn’t mean the gamble is wrong; it just means it’s risky. The vaccine authorization is an important moment in this debate because it is an example of the kind of first-mover advantage that Britain will need to take advantage of over and over again outside the EU if it is to succeed. Fast-tracking authorization of a vaccine that was produced in the EU under EU law is not an argument in favor of Brexit, but it is an example of what Britain wants to do in the future.
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.
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.