Just as Boris Johnson’s election victory had seemed to bring welcome clarity, Coronavirus swept into muddy the waters again. But it also illustrated the risks for the UK of being a medium-sized country alone, writes Valdai Club expert Mary Dejevsky. The EU’s collective response to the virus may have left much to be desired, though there has been more medical and economic cooperation than it often appeared. But the response of the US hardly offered any attractive alternative model.
In the middle of March, Boris Johnson was riding high by almost any measure. He had broken the logjam in Brexit negotiations with Brussels and secured an agreement that ensured the UK’s formal departure from the European Union on 31 January. He had gambled on calling a general election in December and won one of the biggest parliamentary majorities for the Conservatives in recent history. His government had introduced a Budget designed to end a decade of austerity and narrow the big gap that had long existed in the UK between rich and poor.
By the end of the month, all those plans lay, if not in ruins, then in indefinite abeyance. The UK was looking at television pictures from Italy and Spain that showed health systems completely overwhelmed by the number of cases of infection by a new disease. The US and most of Europe had closed its borders. On 20 March, Johnson’s government presented what was essentially a completely new budget, underwriting the shutdown of whole sectors of private business and fast-tracking state benefits to those suddenly without work. On the evening of 23 March, the Prime Minister gave a solemn televised address to the nation, warning – in words that probably made more of an impression than any he had uttered in his whole political career – that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”.
The next day the UK had followed Italy, Spain and France into “lockdown”. All schools, shops and service outlets except for supermarkets were closed. The streets of London and other UK cities were deserted. Parliament adjourned for the Easter break early, and the whole of the media was dominated by coverage of the Coronavirus. Brexit had vanished not just from the headlines, but from the whole media and political landscape.
Brexit had not gone away, though. And it can be seen in three separate aspects of the UK response to the pandemic.
The first seems like a strange little episode, but said a great deal about the UK’s post-Brexit predicament. In the UK, as in many other countries, there were concerns about a shortage of medical equipment for patients with breathing difficulties. There were warnings and complaints, too, about difficulties in obtaining sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff. In the end, the Government appointed a special group to try to obtain more PPE from UK producers and others around the world, and distribution was delegated to the armed forces, which had been mobilised – very unusually for the UK – to help with a national emergency at home.
On 21 April, however, the equipment shortage suddenly became a highly political issue. With Parliament back from its Easter recess, there was a “virtual” meeting of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to consider how the Government was handling the Coronavirus crisis. One of those called to answer questions was the head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Simon McDonald. He is a civil servant, not a minister, and someone who is outside politics.
He was asked why the UK had not taken part in a joint European Union effort to obtain PPE and other equipment. He said that a “political” decision had been made not to take part. The inference was that, because of Brexit, the UK wanted to remain separate and to act independently. There had also been reports that the UK had refused the offer of a German-developed Covid-19 test, choosing instead to develop its own.
Only an hour or so later, the government minister in charge of health, Matt Hancock, was asked a similar question at the daily Coronavirus media briefing at Downing Street. He categorically denied that there had been any political decision not to take part, saying it was the result of confused communications. The media were abuzz with talk of conflict between ministers and civil servants. That same evening, Sir Simon wrote a letter, completely retracting his statement about a “political” decision.
It remains a mystery as to whether the UK was or was not invited to take part in a joint EU effort to obtain medical equipment and whether, if it was invited, London decided to refuse for political reasons. What is clear, however, is that the Government considered the issue inflammatory enough to require a senior civil servant to “correct” his statement. And it was inflammatory because it suggested that the UK Government had refused an opportunity to obtain life-saving equipment so as not to look dependent on the EU – something that would receive a very hostile public reaction.
The official version now is that there was miscommunication between London and Brussels. But the question of what really happened is bound to be asked again in the many investigations that will be launched when the pandemic is over.
The second example concerns relations with China. While most EU countries have been less openly condemning of China than President Donald Trump and his Administration, it is probably fair to say that the UK Government has appeared “softer” on China than most. The UK was among the last European countries to evacuate its nationals from Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have begun. Officially, the UK government was less outspoken about the treatment and subsequent death of the Wuhan hospital whistleblower Li Wenliang. It also resisted calls to condemn what was widely seen as China’s use of the pandemic to repress democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.
For China to be identified as the source of the virus was highly inconvenient for the UK for several reasons. The UK, it turned out, was highly dependent on China for its supplies of PPE, but supply chains were breaking down, and it was hard to source supplies elsewhere. Second, there are, or were, thousands of Chinese students at British universities, which have come to rely on them for a large slice of their income.
Third, there was the vexed question of trade with China, starting with the UK’s decision to allow the Chinese communications giant, Huawei, to have a part in the development of 5G in the UK. This decision – still not completely finalised – placed London in conflict with the United States and Australia, two members of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which objected on security grounds. But London is reluctant to drop Huawei, partly because it is already so dependent on the Chinese company for telecoms hardware, but partly because it fears that any retreat from this arrangement could affect prospects for trade with China in the future.
In its search for bilateral trade deals after Brexit, the UK has pinned considerable hope on China. If, as is possible, China finds its international good name tarnished after Coronavirus and other countries choose to end their dependence on China for certain goods, such as medical equipment, the UK’s enthusiasm to increase trade with China will not only look outdated, but could be unpopular with British voters.
And this leads on to the third problematic area where Brexit and Coronavirus intersect. This is the future, and the trade agreement that is supposed to be negotiated between London and Brussels by 31 December of this year, which would complete the “divorce”. Brussels insisted through the early stages of the Brexit talks, while Theresa May was still Prime Minister, that the UK would not be allowed to “cherry-pick” bits of its relationship with the EU that it wanted to keep and emphasized that, in terms of trade, movement of people and the law, the UK had to be either in or out. There was nowhere in between.
A phrase that has become associated with Boris Johnson is his desire to “have his cake and eat it”, and he still insists that UK can handle the aftermath of Coronavirus and meet the deadline for a trade deal with Brussels. The pandemic, however, has given those who doubt whether this is feasible – especially former UK “Remainers” – new arguments for wanting an extension. They cite the time that has been lost because of the pandemic and Boris Johnson’s illness; the completely different – but as yet uncertain – economic circumstances that will prevail both in the EU and in the UK after Coronavirus, and the sheer practical difficulties of conducting talks remotely, or with “social distancing”.
It is still possible that Johnson will decide in the end to ask for an extension. Others say that he – and certainly many Brexiteers – would be content to leave the EU at the end of the year with no trade deal, blaming the pandemic for any additional economic damage. In an apparent signal to Brussels that the UK has other options, Johnson’s government kept to its original timetable for starting trade talks with the United States – negotiations opened formally on 5 May, despite Coronavirus ravaging both sides of the Atlantic.
But the EU has other options, too. Any hope in London that post-pandemic economic difficulties could soften the EU’s approach to trade talks with the UK is said to be completely wrong. Brussels has remained united through talks until now, and will have other priorities than Brexit. In many ways, the EU has already “moved on” to the post-Brexit world, and Coronavirus has accelerated that process.
The first days of May have seen another small sign of the UK positioning itself for its relations with the EU after Brexit. Boris Johnson took part – this time, it seems, the communications worked – in a “virtual” meeting to launch an international effort to find a Coronavirus vaccine. As presented by Boris Johnson to UK audiences, this was a UK-led initiative. In fact, it was an EU-led initiative, and the UK was, at most “co-hosting”.
Was the UK’s claim to leadership an attempt to distance itself from the EU, or was the fact that Johnson publicised the UK’s participation an attempt instead to correct whatever went wrong with the PPE project in January? Was it perhaps a sign from London that it is interested in cooperating with the EU on specific subjects and is shifting perhaps towards more multilateralism in its diplomatic approach?
The future is still very uncertain. Just as Boris Johnson’s election victory had seemed to bring welcome clarity, Coronavirus swept into muddy the waters again. But it also illustrated the risks for the UK of being a medium-sized country alone. The EU’s collective response to the virus may have left much to be desired, though there has been more medical and economic cooperation than it often appeared. But the response of the US hardly offered any attractive alternative model. The UK was left to chart its own course. The experience could turn out to be a salutary foretaste of what is to come.