Did Brexit save Britain -- but unravel the United Kingdom?

Did Brexit save Britain -- but unravel the United Kingdom?
(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

The answer is: we won’t know for at least a while. The Washington Free Beacon argued yesterday that the COVID-19 pandemic has vindicated Brexit — not necessarily because of anything the United Kingdom did, but because the European Union’s response has been disastrous. The UK had its early struggles in coming to grips with the pandemic, but its divorce from the EU allowed Boris Johnson the ability to chart the country’s independent course on vaccines and public-health response.

That divorce saved thousands of lives, the Free Beacon’s Aaron Sibarium argues. In this, the Free Beacon finds itself in rare agreement with the New York Times, although the latter largely avoided a conclusion two weeks ago making the same comparison:

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.

That’s certainly the conclusion that Johnson and the Tories want Britons to absorb. The NYT’s analysis looked more at the political impact of the vaccinations and the overall handling of the pandemic and whether Johnson could benefit from it:

Britain’s rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines has revived the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now, Mr. Johnson’s allies hope the stark disparity between Britain’s performance and the European Union’s will do something perhaps even more challenging: vindicate their larger Brexit project.

Pro-Brexit politicians and commentators are casting Britain’s vaccine deployment, which ranks among the fastest in the world, as an example of risk-taking and entrepreneurial pluck that comes from not being shackled to the collective decision-making of the 27 member states of the European Union.

Is that limited strictly to “pro-Brexit politicians and commentators”? Not if you look at the polling, which I covered at the time. An Ipsos poll showed 65% of Remainers believe the UK did better on pandemic handling without the EU’s direction. To Sibarium’s point, this seems like less of an opinion or argument than it is an objective fact. This chart from Our World in Data shows the comparison, adjusted for population, between cumulative vaccinations administered between the US, UK, and the EU:

The US and UK are fairly close, with the UK slightly ahead of us. The EU lags far, far behind despite having the same general resources advantages of the UK and US. If one credits vaccinations with reducing transmission and deaths, which is obvious, then the UK clearly benefited from Brexit in terms of life and death.

So yes, that’s a fair argument, but pandemics aren’t the only measure of success either. How well will the United Kingdom prosper as a result of Brexit, long term? That’s obviously more murky, but we’re seeing some of its predictable results in Northern Ireland already. The agreement signed by Johnson essentially leaves Northern Ireland stuck in the EU’s trade and economics zone, undermining its sense of Britishness. And loyalists have responded with violence, increasing over the last couple of weeks to levels that have begun to attract international notice:

A week of rioting reached new heights of intense violence in Northern Ireland with clashes overnight Wednesday that saw demonstrators hijack and torch a double-decker bus and battle police, who responded with plastic bullets.

Police and politicians called it the worst violence in Northern Ireland in more than a decade, triggered in part by pro-British Protestant unionists who fear that their home is drifting away from Britain in the new realities of a post-Brexit world.

When the nightly riots began across Northern Ireland a week ago, it was mostly young men and teenagers from unionist neighborhoods skirmishing with police. Some of those arrested were 13 and 14 years old.

But on Wednesday, hundreds of Irish nationalist and unionist demonstrators began to face off, a worrying escalation that stirred old memories of the 30 years of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, which led to the deaths of 3,500 civilians, British security personnel and paramilitary members.

The protesters have attacked police, wounding over 40 of them over the last few days. The police union told the BBC that younger people are getting “cynically used” by older and “more sinister” elements of society, but that’s what people warned would happen when Brexit and its various forms were being debated:

Mark Lindsay said a “perfect storm” had emerged linked to various issues, including the decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin members in relation to the funeral of Bobby Storey and problems over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Lindsay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are young people who are being cynically used by older, more sinister elements of society – more than likely aligned to what we would call paramilitary, but which in anywhere else are criminal organisations and large criminal gangs, and young people are often the cannon fodder they use to go onto the streets to attack police.”

This has been the core flaw in Brexit from the beginning. The EU’s common market helped eliminate border issues in Ireland thanks to both countries being in the same free-trade zone. By breaking out of that arrangement, the UK needed to draw a border somewhere, but the EU (and especially the Republic of Ireland) insisted on keeping the island itself open, as per the Good Friday Agreement. Putting the trade border on the island would have touched off the republicans in Northern Ireland, and putting the trade border in the Irish Sea — which was the solution Johnson accepted — essentially undermined the British character and authority in the enclave. The people in Northern Ireland now have the EU in charge of their economic activity, but without any say in that decision-making. It’s untenable.

This is a conundrum without a solution. Leaders in the UK, Ireland, and Northern Ireland are all rightly calling for an end to violence and a return to negotiations. However, the problem is that there’s not much to negotiate, because the UK insisted on building a trade border with Brexit, and it has to be somewhere. Eventually, this will end up accelerating reunification in Ireland as British authority and identity recedes. The only question appears to be now whether it will erupt in sectarian warfare before it gets to that point.

It’s pretty safe to say that Brexit saved Britain. It will eventually spell the demise of the United Kingdom, however.

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