How Brexit Saved Britain

Europe’s vaccine debacle demonstrates the downsides of the EU

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April 8, 2021

In March 2020, with COVID-19 bearing down on Europe, the Guardian published a stark headline: "Brexit means coronavirus vaccine will be slower to reach the UK." The European Union would entice drug makers with its massive market, the news article said, meaning member states would get first dibs on any vaccine.

To make matters worse, the United Kingdom was leaving a European governmental entity that allows for "accelerated assessment" of new drugs. Experts quoted in the article warned that it would be "all but impossible" for Britain to develop its own authorization process before the vaccines were available.

Predictions of a procurement crisis did come to pass—but they are a better description of what happened in Europe than the U.K., where Brexit sped up the vaccine rollout beyond anyone’s expectations. Being outside Brussels bureaucracy let Britain move faster and take more risks than the EU, which was hamstrung by its lack of a strong central executive. Instead of buying vaccines individually, member states let the European Commission negotiate on their behalf, hoping their pooled purchasing power would lead to better deals with pharmaceutical companies. But the bloc was so bureaucratic it did the opposite.

Thus it was Britain, not the EU, that got first dibs on Pfizer and AstraZeneca: The U.K. negotiated tighter contracts with those companies, catapulting it to the front of the line. And it was Britain, not the EU, that approved AstraZeneca in December, a month before the Europeans. The U.K. has now vaccinated over 50 percent of its population; the EU has vaccinated less than 20 percent.

The jab gap has turned the tables on the EU, which for most of 2020 had a lower death rate than the U.K. Deaths are plummeting across the pond but rising across the continent, partly due to the more contagious strain Britain bequeathed to its neighbors. As a half-vaccinated U.K. exits lockdown, the rest of Europe is heading back into it, with little light at the end of the tunnel. And as Europe’s economic prospects stall, Britain’s have received a shot in the arm.

The results lend support to two related critiques of the EU: that it has too much bureaucracy and not enough sovereignty.

No negotiator for the EU had unilateral decision-making power; rather, each of the 27 member states had a voice, which made the negotiations incredibly inefficient. The EU "had to go for the lowest common denominator," the Atlantic Council’s Benjamin Haddad told the Washington Free Beacon, limiting its largesse to what its most risk-averse members would tolerate.

As a result, the EU took much longer than Britain to reach an agreement with AstraZeneca, meaning the company had less time to iron out the logistics of supplying Europe. Negotiators also refused to waive liability for vaccine-makers and sought to minimize prices per dose, which made their final offers considerably less generous than the U.K.’s.

This bureaucratic thriftiness extended to vaccine production. Brussels made few investments in manufacturing capacity and thus had limited leverage in negotiations. The U.K., by contrast, pumped millions of euros into European factories making the AstraZeneca jabs, on the condition that jabs made at those factories be set aside for Britain.

All this meant that when it came time to dole out doses, the U.K. was first in line.

Being outside the EU let Britain take other risks, such as authorizing AstraZeneca amid questions about its trial data. Against the advice of EU regulators, it also delayed second shots to expedite the rollout of the first, reasoning that some immunity was better than none.

Each bet paid off, something even remainers have recognized. Kate Bingham, the 55-year-old venture capitalist whom Boris Johnson deputized to lead the U.K.’s vaccine procurement process, voted against Brexit but nonetheless credited it with her team’s success, telling the Financial Times that Britain wouldn’t have had "a seat at the table" if it had joined the EU’s purchasing bloc.

Bingham’s role in Britain—an executive agent tasked with making rapid, bold decisions—had no real counterpart in the European Commission, which is not an executive body but rather a rule-making institution, insulated from democratic pressures. While commission president Ursula von der Leyen technically "led" the procurement process, her mandate wasn’t wide enough to act without the consent of all member states. In a situation that demanded decisiveness, there was no one to take control—or take responsibility.

The closest thing to an EU executive is the European Council, which consists of the heads of member states and the commission president. In past emergencies such as the euro crisis, the council has hammered out solutions outside the normal Brussels machinery, often upsetting the commission in the process. Though the council meets behind closed doors, its members are the presidents and prime ministers of their own countries, giving them more of a mandate to make decisions on behalf of the continent.

But those decisions are intrinsically political—and with vaccine procurement, there was a strong desire to avoid politics. Leaders worried about a zero-sum free-for-all that pitted member states against each other, so it made sense to punt negotiations to the least political part of the EU. Also at play was a desire to show solidarity against the "vaccine nationalism" Brussels associated with President Donald Trump, an unpopular figure in Europe. Had the procurement scheme seemed to privilege one member state over another, it would have undermined the EU’s anti-political ambitions.

The steep cost of those ambitions has made remainers reconsider the case for Brexit, whose famous slogan—"take back control"—was an explicit embrace of the political. "I voted remain and would again," Josh Glancy, the Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times, told the Free Beacon. "But for the first time, I’ve felt actively pleased about Brexit." He added that many remainers he knows feel the same way.

In the end, the EU didn’t succeed in escaping politics any more than it succeeded at securing vaccines. Hemorrhaging doses that had been earmarked for Britain but produced on EU soil, the EU took steps in March to curb its exports. While less extreme than the export ban Brussels briefly considered, the measures can be understood as a kind of vaccine supranationalism—Europe First, so to speak. It was the sort of sovereign action that had been missing from the EU’s procurement scheme from the start. It was also a very sudden rule change for an allegedly rules-based body.

Compounding this crisis of credibility was the EU’s incoherent messaging on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which may prolong the pandemic by exacerbating Europe’s vaccine skepticism.

Several European leaders, French president Emmanuel Macron in particular, raised baseless concerns about the safety and efficacy of the shot—even as they were demanding more of it. Brussels effectively told Britain to stop hogging a terrible vaccine, one which many European countries had briefly suspended over a blood clot scare.

Trust in AstraZeneca has collapsed across the continent, with majorities in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy saying the vaccine is unsafe. When the EU does get its hands on more doses, Europeans may not be willing to take them, making a crisis that’s gone on a year go on for at least two.

Could Britain have negotiated its own contracts if it were still part of the EU? In theory, yes. Member states were not required to join the purchasing bloc, and the U.K. had declined to take part in EU initiatives before. Britain "might have gone its own way anyway," Bruno Maçães, a former European-affairs minister from Portugal, told the Free Beacon. Its independent streak was one reason for Brexit in the first place.

But although member states could technically opt out of the purchasing bloc, none of them did—meaning the U.K. would have faced enormous pressure to participate. "I struggle to see how the politics of that would have worked," Richard Aldous, a British historian at Bard College, said of a scenario in which the U.K. had stayed in the EU but eschewed its procurement scheme. "Even if the U.K. could have gone its own way legally, it would have been tough politically."

It would also have been extremely risky for anyone seeking reelection. Had Britain gone its own way and been last in line as a result, "the government would have toppled," argued Alan Mendoza, the director of the Henry Jackson Society in London. "We wouldn’t have been able to take the risk."

Since the EU has less democratic accountability than Britain, the top brass in Brussels will likely scrape by. More uncertain is the future of the European project, to which the vaccine debacle has dealt a blow.

"The EU will face a reckoning," Haddad said. If current trends continue, it will also face a fourth wave of the virus, driven by the strain from the country that recently left it.