Of all the charges made against Brexiteers, the notion that we ‘don’t understand the modern world’ is the one that some Remainers have most often returned to; their equivalent of the boxer’s stinging jab that relentlessly wears down an opponent. In a global system increasingly dominated by a handful of big players with huge populations and land mass – the US, China, India, Russia – being a medium-sized nation in Europe without the umbrella of the EU was supposed to be a mug’s game.
In the European Parliament, that arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt would often refer to the countries of Europe as ‘dwarfs’ who needed to band together to compete in such a world. We all remember Barack Obama trotting out a similar thesis during our referendum campaign, delighting David Cameron’s Downing Street team by saying that Britain would be at the ‘back of the queue’ in trade talks because he would look to deal with ‘a big bloc, the European Union’ first.
When Boris Johnson decided last spring to stay out of the European Union’s Covid vaccine programme out came the jab again from the usual suspects. The Prime Minister was accused of being ready to sacrifice British lives on the altar of a hopelessly outdated Little England ideology – ‘silly Brexit games,’ said Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey. The EU’s massive combined purchasing-power was going to leave us scrabbling about for crumbs.
The Brexiteer answer to such charges has always been that, in fact, there are many advantages to acting as an independent nation state – quicker decision-making processes, the ability to pursue national priorities, more accountability to the public. These arguments have often been summed up by deployment of the word ‘nimble’.
Well, ‘nimble’ has just beaten ‘big bloc’ hands down on the most important post-Brexit issue Britain has yet faced and is likely to face for many months – the provision of life-saving and economy-saving vaccines.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has compounded its hideously embarrassing, ultra-bureaucratic failure to secure its own supplies by resorting to bullying, tantrums and ultimately full-on meltdown in the form of its triggering (and subsequent u-turn) of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to implement a hard border.
This is not a story so tied up in jargon as to stay within the political class either. We are not talking about a dispute over the EU Emissions Trading System or Common Agricultural Policy ‘set aside’ measures, but about who is rescued from the fatal curse of Covid and who isn’t.
To understand the importance of Britain’s success and the EU’s failure one only has to contemplate for a moment where we would be had things turned out the other way round. If the EU were now administering jabs by the million while Britain faced months of shortages, the outcry would surely be deafening.
Brexiteers would be deemed to have blood on their hands. Remain’s most colourful phrase-makers – the Alastair Campbells and David Schneiders – would be having a field day and ‘forensic’ Keir Starmer would be carving-up the carcass of Boris Johnson at PMQs. And an old war cry would be getting revived too: Brexit is a fraud and a disaster so let’s have a ‘People’s Vote’ to rejoin, they would say.
Instead, it has all gone quiet. Even Campbell fell into dumbfounded Twitter silence before ultimately responding with a lame gripe about Brexiteer triumphalism in the face of the European Commission’s ‘vaccine faux-pas’.
The impact upon British public opinion will be profound. Not only has the EU been seen to fail, but it has failed because of the very drawbacks inherent within its system that Brexiteers had previously identified. And Britain has succeeded precisely because it decided to ‘take back control’.
Never again will the pro-EU businesswoman Deborah Meaden be able to challenge people to name ‘any upsides of leaving the EU’ and need to be countered with anything other than hollow laughter.
And people like Andrew Adonis, who grandly declared that the Rejoin campaign had started the moment the UK left the transition period on New Year’s Eve, are having to contemplate the challenge now facing them – no longer an absurdly drawn-out, uphill slog but a sheer cliff face with no apparent indents or outcrops to get them started.
And we haven’t seen the half of it yet. Though the EU vaccine debacle and British vaccine triumph has received days of blanket coverage and will have cut through in millions of homes, the impact of both is only just being felt.
Within a couple of weeks, so long as the vaccines work as scientific data predicts, Britain’s susceptibility to Covid will hopefully start to fall drastically. But across the Channel the immunisation programmes appear destined to stay becalmed for months ahead, suspended altogether in some countries.
The fury of European citizenry will gather pace if new lockdowns are forced upon them while Britain starts to open-up again. The basic narrative will recur in a thousand formats on television and in the press – from human interest stories to ongoing fatality figures, from Britain helping the world to the EU not even being able to help itself.
Never say never is generally good political advice. But the British people will never vote to rejoin the EU now. Not so long as it continues with its project of political integration. You see, the basic problem is that it just doesn’t understand the modern world.
Written byPatrick O’Flynn