The vaccine dispute rekindles mutual mistrust across the Channel

A few months after Brexit, an old affliction returned. Symptoms include fits of paranoia, bad faith, and hot flashes of patriotic anger. As a French immigrant who lived in the UK for several years, I developed some immunity against this disease. Even so, I am surprised by the intensity of the vaccine dispute between London and Brussels, and the divorce of European and British thought.

With roots in one country, a future in another, and a heart in both, expats like me are caught in a painful game of emotional ping-pong. “We don’t need the EU,” one of them shouted cover this week from the Daily Express, a fiercely anti-Brussels tabloid. He announced Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to boost domestic vaccine manufacturing after the EU threatened export restrictions.

On the mainland meanwhile, where deliveries of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine are delayed, the feeling is that ‘the UK has cheated the EU’. An eminent French chronicler insinuated that while the UK likes to portray itself as a champion of free trade, the government has pressured the University of Oxford to work with a UK company, AstraZeneca, instead of a US company to produce their Covid-19 jab – a story that has not been clearly established. He then also negotiated a exclusivity of delivery clause. This, pointed out French magazine Le Point, was a particularly devious move as scientists at Oxford had received hundreds of millions of dollars in EU funding.

In Britain, all this left the Brexiters having fun, explains Karine Varley, Franco-British historian at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. “Finally, Britain is doing well,” she added. Likewise, British Europhiles are unstable.

French President Emmanuel Macron, admired by many British liberals, has caused great perplexity by calling the AstraZeneca vaccine “almost ineffective” on the elderly. The comment may have been imbued with jealousy at the speed of the UK vaccination program – or maybe it was from new mastery of epidemiology. Macron’s comments were “stupid,” said Denis MacShane, former European affairs minister under Tony Blair. “The UK vaccine strategy has been riskier than the EU’s – but it has paid off,” adds Varley.

The British and mainland Europeans have been so out of step during this pandemic that any prospect of mutual understanding seems remote. The UK is emerging from lockdown just as many EU countries re-impose theirs.

I haven’t met any British anti-vaxxers yet, but I count several skeptics among my friends in France. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that European regulators have suspended vaccine deployment due to possible side effects. EU member states are bickering over a lot of things, but institutional solidarity has now synchronized their problems. “We drift over and over again,” MacShane says.

I take comfort in thinking that the upheaval may not be an accurate predictor of future relationships, nor a guide to happier times in shared history. After Napoleon III’s visit to London in 1855, Queen Victoria reflected on the “Remarkable combination of circumstances“Which led to” the very intimate alliance which now unites England and France, for so many centuries the most bitter enemies and rivals, and this, under the reign of the current emperor, the nephew of our most great enemy.

Today, mutual suspicion is the predominant scenario. Yet there is room for hope. Determined to succeed with vaccines after failing so badly at the start of the pandemic, Johnson is showing signs more cooperation. The EU would also prefer to avoid a vaccine war. For cross-Channel migrants like me, it would be a welcome respite.

And yet: who can be sure that decisions will be taken in good faith and without ulterior motives? In fact, would it surprise me if the UK put France on its red list of countries, requiring returnees to be quarantined in hotels? No, but I may also have caught the post-Brexit nervousness.

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