'Hostile' EU's Covid-19 vaccine spat with UK boosts support for Brexit

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – British voters’ attitudes are hardening against the European Union in the wake of the clashes between London and Brussels over coronavirus vaccines that have marked the 100 days since the UK completed its divorce from the bloc.

A new Bloomberg poll shows support for Brexit has grown since the historic 2016 referendum, and almost two-thirds of adults believe that being outside the EU helped the UK’s vaccination programme to succeed.

In the survey of 2,002 people conducted online by JL Partners for Bloomberg, 67 per cent of respondents said the EU has behaved in a “hostile” way toward Britain in the dispute over vaccine supplies.

Just 13 per cent said the bloc had acted like an “ally and a friend.”

The findings reveal the extent of the damage done to British-European relations by the tensions over trade and vaccines that defined the first three months since the UK left EU’s single market and customs regime at the end of last year.

They also point to a new set of dividing lines in British politics as voters start to move on from five years of debate over Brexit.

The shift in attitudes can be seen among people who voted to stay in the bloc in the referendum, as well as those who opted to leave. It’s even visible in some of the most staunchly pro-EU parts of the country.

Wrapped up against the cold English spring, Mr Simon Zucconi, 51, and his colleague Becky, 34, sell tulips and lilies to pedestrians outside the underground station in Brixton, part of a London suburb that had the highest vote to remain in 2016.

‘Bitter ex’

“The EU are behaving like a bitter ex,” said Becky, who asked not to give her full name. “We’ve left, and they’ve not really been an ally when they could have been.”

Five years ago, Becky voted to leave – but Mr Zucconi, the son of an Italian migrant, wanted to stay in the trade bloc because he couldn’t see the economic benefits of Brexit.

Now, with the third wave of the pandemic raging in Europe, he’s grateful to be living in Britain with its National Health Service that has given out 39 million vaccine doses, more than twice the 13 million distributed in Italy.

“The vaccine was amazingly quick,” he said. “I’m proud I was in the UK when this situation happened. I’d be worried if I was in Italy. I’m actually proud of the government.”

It is a sentiment that’s widely shared. According to the poll, 62 per cent of Britons felt the UK’s vaccine programme had been better because of Brexit, with only 11 per cent saying it has been worse.

The UK opted not to take part in the EU’s vaccine programme last year, and instead sought to strike quicker deals with drug companies on its own. Had Britain remained in the bloc, it could still have chosen to go its own way – but it would have been politically harder to justify than as a departing member state.

Mr Zucconi says he would still vote to re-join the EU – if he could face another six years of political bickering – but, elsewhere, support for Brexit has increased.

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Stay out

Almost one in five of those who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 would choose to stay out now, according to the poll. By contrast, only 9 per cent of 2016 leave voters want to re-join.

When respondents who declined to back either side are removed, the equivalent of 54 per cent of adults now say they would vote to stay out of the bloc in a repeat referendum, and 46 per cent say they would re-join. That’s a wider margin than the 52 per cent-48 per cent split in 2016.

Yet there is another side to the story of the UK’s newfound independence from Europe. For the past six years, Mr Boris Johnson and other pro-Brexit campaigners have promised the public a bright future with more opportunities for global trade.

Yet supplies of flowers from Holland have become harder to secure for Zucconi, while the wholesale price of a box of imported red peppers at a nearby greengrocer’s stall has jumped to 22 pounds (S$40.43) from 7 pounds. Some wholesalers won’t buy the peppers now.

The UK left the EU’s single market and customs regime after a yearlong transition period at the end of December, immediately causing difficulties for companies trading across the European border.

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Businesses have complained of delays to shipments of goods and a drop in freight volumes, while Britain is facing legal action from the EU in a row over barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Traders’ pain

According to the poll, 62 per cent of people believe the UK’s trade with the EU has worsened since Brexit, with only 8 per cent saying it had improved. More than half of those who voted to leave the bloc in 2016 also think trade has got worse since Brexit.

Voters are split on whether the UK’s trade with the rest of the world has improved: 32 per cent say it has, 30 per cent say it hasn’t, and 38 per cent don’t know.

The truth is that since the pandemic hit, the UK’s European divorce has taken a back seat to the health and economic crisis sweeping across the world, in the eyes of politicians and voters alike.

A freight truck leaves the Port of Newhaven in England, on Jan 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

In Brixton’s Electric Avenue, Mr Muhammad Aqeel fears the combined impact of Brexit and coronavirus on his meat and fish business.

The 33-year-old director at Brixton Foods voted to stay in the EU in 2016. But, like Mr Zucconi, he’s impressed with Britain’s pandemic response, even though the UK still has the highest death toll in Europe at more than 127,000.

Mr Aqeel’s biggest fear is that shopping habits won’t go back to normal when the pandemic ends.

“Most of our regular customers, we haven’t seen for long,” he said. “If they’ve started using supermarkets, we don’t know if they’re going to come back.”

Big mistake

In Brixton Village, the covered market, Ms Maria Olivo is preparing to reopen wine bar Cheese + Fizz as the lockdown eases. The cost of importing cheese has already increased since the end of the transition period and Ms Olivo, 30, expects a similar hit to wine supplies.

“Brexit was a big mistake,” she said. “It doesn’t really make sense for us to be out of Europe if we are in the same geographical area.” Again, the fallout from the pandemic is her dominant concern.

“I’m much more worried about what will happen in the future between Brexit and the pandemic together – how many taxes we will pay on our salary,” Ms Olivo said, adding that they will need to be increased at some point.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak proudly trumpets the 407 billion pounds he has committed for pandemic support and intends to raise the taxes to their highest level for 50 years to begin to pay the bill.

While most economists agree that protecting jobs in the short term with higher borrowing is the right course, the consensus over what comes next is likely to be severely tested in the years ahead.

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Future fights

For Mr Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, this is where the future political dividing lines in Britain will lie, as most people he meets now want to move on from the bruising debates over Europe that have dominated for the past five years.

Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats, the two main opposition parties, has committed to rejoin the bloc, leaving the few campaigners who do want to on the political margins.

“The big future battle is inevitably going to be about spending and taxation,” Mr Baker said. That will encompass a broader debate about whether the state is too big, curtailing freedoms and ramping up tax and spending, he said. It’s a debate that threatens to replace Brexit as the new fracture-line for Mr Johnson’s ruling Tories.

“The full spectrum of legitimate political discourse is in the Conservative Party – classical liberals and conservative pragmatists all in one vote, arguing with each other,” Mr Baker said. “In the midst of all this, the Tory Party is in danger of being torn in two.”

JL Partners polled 2,002 adults online across Britain on April 7 and 8, with a margin of error of 2.2 per cent.

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