Grabbing the Future Back from Nationalists

Mike Buckley, Seb Dance and John Howarth.

How has Brexit impacted on the UK’s COVID-19 response and why is the UK’s future relationship with the European Union now more important than ever?

The UK has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe and – after the US – in the world. While the Government makes excuses about international comparisons and seeks to burnish its credentials by suggesting that the real issue is that the UK is simply better at collecting data, the truth is that its response has been appalling. The UK was forewarned but failed to prepare. It was too slow to lockdown, too slow to test, too slow to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS and care workers and other at-risk groups. We are living through a national catastrophe, the true extent of which will not be apparent for some time. 

The pandemic is as much of a political and economic shock as the World Wars, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. The world we knew before has gone. Beyond the crisis, we will need to rebuild our economy and renew our politics so that the mistakes made this time around are never repeated. Systemic failures in social care and health inequalities, putting poorer and BAME people at greater risk from the likes of the Coronavirus, must be addressed. The list of post-crisis priorities is already clear, but addressing them will take political will and resolve. 

In the midst of this, it seems perverse to talk about Brexit. But Brexit is as much a part of the Coronavirus story as anything else. The same arrogance and exceptionalism which has driven it has also driven our willingness to be an international outlier when it comes to the Coronavirus – allowing it take its course in February and March in the hope of achieving ‘herd immunity’, instead of implementing a swift lockdown to avoid following the path of Italy and Spain. 

Leaving the European Union has already made the outbreak in the UK worse. But for Brexit, we surely would have taken part in the EU’s joint procurement scheme for PPE and ventilators. That we did not, and put NHS and care workers in danger, has cost lives. The open supply chains that the Single Market enables are all that stood between the UK and empty supermarket shelves – supply chains which the Government fully intends to cut at the end of the year. As things stand, the Government is refusing to extend the Brexit transition period and refusing to fully participate in negotiations, with EU negotiators concluding that there is “no sign the UK wants trade talks to succeed”. They believe that the Government is committed to the hardest of Brexits and believes that the economic fallout from the virus will mask any further harm it may cause.

COVID-19, however, does not restrict trade. Brexit does – driving up prices, creating artificial scarcity and lowering the quality of healthcare products and services available to people. It will add more costs and barriers to business, cut food or medical supply chains and harm the UK’s ability to benefit from collaboration with other nations. Reports suggest that the economy is already facing a “once in 300 years” crisis. To add a ‘no deal’ Brexit – with all that would mean for supply chains and imperilled business survival – would be an act of gross self-harm. While the Coronavirus is a global phenomenon we cannot control, Brexit is our choice alone. 

Time to Stand Up for Internationalism

For internationalists, COVID-19 is proof of how tied together our futures are. Events are making the case for expertise, collaboration and our interdependence. Even the former Prime Minister Theresa May, no friend of the EU, recognises that nationalism is no friend in the battle against the virus and that international institutions and collaboration are essential. 

Those of us who believe in collaboration are perhaps understandably subdued following the realisation of Brexit, leaving few voices to argue for a renewal of our multilateral institutions and collaboration. Another former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been a welcome voice arguing passionately for a renewed commitment to shared solutions. But we also need today’s leaders to enter the fray. Some business groups are speaking out, but their ability to influence the Government or public opinion, particularly now, is low. International voices from the EU or member states get little media attention in the UK.

Brexit may be in train, but this is no time for those of us who believe in collaboration and shared solutions to be silent. To get the Government to choose a different course, more business groups, medical professionals and scientists will need to speak out and the Labour Party must do the same. The rest of us can email our MPs, who despite all the bad press are interested in what their constituents think because their jobs depend on it, after all.

The Coronavirus is emblematic of any single nation’s inability to fix the other generational problems that face us – such as climate change, insecurity in work and finance, environmental depletion or migration. If we wish to see the UK to take action on any or all of these areas, we have to speak up; to own the post-Coronavirus narrative and defeat the populist right. Those who consider themselves on the democratic, internationalist left will need to shake off their defeatist mindset, arm themselves with fresh ideas and compelling policies, and the will to win. It’s up to us to create change.

Seb Dance and John Howarth (Politic Without Borders) are former Labour MEPs. Mike Buckley is Director of campaign group Labour for a European Future