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Vaccine dispute revives mutual mistrust across the Channel

A few months into Brexit, an old affliction has returned. Symptoms include bouts of paranoia, bad faith and hot flashes of patriotic anger. As a French immigrant who has lived several years in the UK, I have developed some immunity to this malady. Even so, I’m surprised by the intensity of the vaccine dispute between London and Brussels, and the divorce of European and British thinking.

With roots in one country, a future in another, and a heart in both, expatriates like me are caught up in a distressing game of emotional ping-pong. “We don’t need EU” blared one cover this week of The Daily Express, a fiercely anti-Brussels tabloid. It was trumpeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to boost domestic vaccine manufacturing after the EU threatened export restrictions.

On the continent meanwhile, where deliveries of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine are delayed, the feeling is “the UK has fooled the EU”. One prominent French columnist insinuated that while the UK likes to portray itself as a free-trade champion, the government pressured Oxford university to work with a British company, AstraZeneca, instead of an American one to produce their Covid-19 jab — a narrative that has not been clearly established. It then also negotiated an exclusivity delivery clause. This, remarked French magazine Le Point, was an especially sneaky move as Oxford scientists had received hundreds of millions in EU funding.

In Britain, all this has left Brexiters having a ball, says Karine Varley, a Franco-British historian at Strathclyde university in Glasgow. “Finally Britain is seen doing well,” she added. By the same token, Europhile Brits are unsettled.

French president Emmanuel Macron, admired by many UK liberals, caused widespread bafflement when he called the AstraZeneca vaccine “quasi-ineffective” on older people. The comment may have been infused with jealousy at the swiftness of the UK vaccine programme — or, perhaps, it stemmed from the French president’s new mastery of epidemiology. Macron’s comments were “stupid” says Denis MacShane, former EU affairs minister under Tony Blair. “The British strategy in vaccines has been riskier than the EU’s — but it has paid off,” adds Varley.

Britons and continental 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 are reimposing theirs.

I am also yet to encounter any UK anti-vaxxers, but count several sceptics among my friends in France. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that European regulators paused the vaccine rollout due to possible side effects. EU member states squabble over many things, but institutional solidarity has now synchronised their problems. “We drift on and on,” says MacShane.

I console myself with the thought that the upset may not be an accurate predictor of future relations, nor much of a guide to happier moments of shared history. After Napoleon III visited London in 1855, Queen Victoria reflected on the “remarkable combination of circumstances” that led to “the very intimate alliance which now unites England and France, for so many centuries the bitterest enemies and rivals, and this, under the reign of the present Emperor, the nephew of our greatest foe.”

Today, mutual suspicion is the predominant scenario. Yet there is room for hope. Bent on succeeding with vaccines after he floundered so badly early in the pandemic, Johnson is showing signs of more co-operation. The EU would also rather avoid a vaccine war. For cross-Channel migrants like me, that would be a welcome respite.

And yet: who can be sure that decisions will be made in good faith and without ulterior motive? In fact, would it surprise me if the UK put France on its red country list, requiring returnees to hotel quarantine? No — but then maybe I have caught the post-Brexit jitters too.

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