The mask slipped — Emmanuel Macron's Trumpian qualities have been on display. Credit: Chesnot/Getty

February 1, 2021   5 mins

It’s the ultimate political fantasy: the sudden revelation that exposes your opponents for exactly who they are. It might be a stolen letter, a leaked email, an unguarded moment captured on camera.

Sometimes — just sometimes — the fantasy becomes fact. On 28 April 2010, Gordon Brown was caught on microphone calling Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman”. All she’d done to earn the Labour PM’s insult was to raise the issue of immigration with him. What followed was a humiliating apology — but neither he, nor arguably the Labour Party, ever recovered. It wasn’t just the incident itself, but what it symbolised: the disdain that the modern Left has for its traditional supporters.

In any walk of life, regaining someone’s trust is much harder than losing it — and with good reason. It was Maya Angelou who said it best: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

That is how we should judge the behaviour of the European Commission over the past few days. Disregard the climb-downs — especially the claim that activating the Article 16 to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland was a “mistake”. As for apologies, the only thing they’re sorry about is the criticism they’ve received — which wasn’t only from the usual sceptics, but also from those such as Michel BarnierCarl Bildt and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Had there been no complaints — just a cry of “uncle!” from AstraZeneca — there’d have been no remorse from the Commission. Indeed, they’d be patting themselves on the back and planning the next shakedown. As it is, no amount of backtracking can change the fact that they showed us who they are.

For British Eurosceptics this is a teachable moment. They told us the EU was a bureaucratic nightmare, a protectionist racket, a mercantilist scam — and now they have the evidence. Meanwhile their opponents, the diehard Remainers and Rejoiners, are in a tight spot. How on Earth do they defend such reckless behaviour?

One approach is to admit that the European Commission was wrong, but for the right reasons. After all, there are lives at stake — and putting one’s own people first is a sentiment we can all understand.

But if lives were their main concern, why choose the path of confrontation instead of cooperation? Both AstraZeneca and the UK have every interest in seeing the vaccine supply issues resolved. Even more important, they have practical experience of getting them resolved. The UK contract also had its problems, but these were quietly addressed rather than turned into a diplomatic incident.

Perhaps making a drama out of a crisis was the whole point of the Commission’s tactics. The drama distracts from the underlying scandal, which is the EU’s mismanagement of its vaccine procurement programme. But let’s be generous and assume that they were only out to save their citizens, not their own necks. In this reading of the situation, the Commissioners chose the path of confrontation because that is how they roll.

The EU is big. It has clout. For a certain kind of Eurocrat, there should be no embarrassment about using this strength to get what Europe needs. Consider the speech given by Guy Verhofstadt — not a man shy of showing us who he is — to the 2019 Lib Dem party conference:

“The world of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It is a world order that is based on empires… The world of tomorrow is a world of empires in which we Europeans, and you British, can only defend your interests, your way of life, by doing it together, in a European framework and in the European Union.”

An imperial mindset would certainly explain why the Commission acted in the way it did. Empires aren’t famous for asking nicely.

This brings us to the other Remainer defence, which is to admit that the EU did the wrong thing and for the wrong reason — and that this is precisely why we’d be safer as part of the empire. To adapt the old adage about tents and micturition “it is better to be inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent being pissed on”. The argument is as cynical as it is cowardly, but that’s not all that’s wrong with it.

For a start, it assumes that no one inside the tent gets pissed on, which is clearly untrue. For instance, the Republic of Ireland, an ultra-loyal member of both the EU and Eurozone, wasn’t even informed (let alone consulted) about the decision to invoke Article 16.

Anyone who was surprised by this hasn’t been paying attention. If it suits the most powerful core members of the Union to betray the interests of the peripheral members, then they will do it. Just look at what they did to Greece during the first Eurozone crisis or what Germany is doing to its eastern neighbours by building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia.

The real difference between being outside and inside the tent is how you get pissed on. Outside, the main threat is trade policy — which is exactly the weapon being used by the EU against the UK in regard to vaccines. But inside the tent, you can get hosed-down in other ways. For instance, last year the European Commission acquired the power to borrow hundreds of billions of Euros from the money markets — for the purpose of protecting the Eurozone from the impact of the Covid crisis. If the UK had voted to Remain, we’d have been on the hook for that colossal debt — despite staying out of the single currency.

As always, the key point is that we didn’t just leave the EU as it was, but as it is becoming. Equally, the opportunities we have outside the EU weren’t fixed in 2016 either, but are constantly evolving. Studies into the economic impact of Brexit — especially those undertaken by British governments — are unambitiously static in their assumptions. For instance, see page 31 of the 2018 long-term economic analysis for examples of the important global trends that are explicitly not modelled. These include technological, demographic and other changes that could be of huge benefit to an advanced, knowledge-driven economy like our own.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the UK will use its freedom to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. However, the success of the UK’s vaccine procurement programme does provide a powerful proof of concept. As an example of what could and should be possible, it is made all the more compelling by the contrast to the EU’s approach. Despite the advantage of a much bigger internal market, the EU procurement programme has been bogged down by performative politics, bureaucratic delay and government lobbying on behalf of vested interests.

Finally, it’s not only integration that’s changing the EU. For the last 16 years, it’s been anchored to the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel. She has steadied the ship through numerous crises including the Great Recession, the eurozone crisis, Brexit and the pandemic. While she’s made mistakes, the “Queen of Europe” is nonetheless a force for continuity. Not for much longer, though. Her reign is drawing to a close — and the vaccine debacle is a sign of what the EU could look like in the hands of less impressive leaders.

We should be especially concerned about an EU in which Emmanuel Macron is the leading light. Last week, it wasn’t just the European Commission who showed us who they were — we also saw the Trumpian qualities of the French President on full display. His absurd claims about the efficacy of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine are a warning sign that should not be ignored. The same goes for the opinion poll that showed Marine Le Pen running him close in a run-off vote for President. Yes, that’s the candidate of the far Right within four percentage points of leading the EU’s second largest economy. Meanwhile her ideological soulmate, Matteo Salvini, is in poll position to become the next Prime Minister of Italy (the EU’s third largest economy).

We therefore cannot assume that the EU of the future will be like the EU of the present. The EU of last week was just a glimpse of how bad things could get.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.