EU knew ‘they stood to lose’ before Brexit deal despite playing down UK’s importance

European Union facing internal 'battle' over vaccines says MEP

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Brussels faced its newest challenge today in what has been a tough start for to the year as Russia threatened to sever ties with the bloc. This was as the EU floated the idea of imposing new, economically restrictive sanctions on the country over the treatment of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an interviewer that Moscow was “ready” for a break with the EU should it move to involve itself in the country’s domestic politics.

He said: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

It is yet another challenge the bloc must now consider after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quickly backtracked on the EU’s decision to threaten the UK’s coronavirus vaccine supplies and trigger Article 16 of the Brexit deal.

The latter effectively erected a hard border on the island of Ireland, furthering an already unstable political situation.

The EU’s frustration came after “Brussels bureaucracy” meant that member states – who had handed sovereignty to the bloc to negotiate and distribute vaccine supplies on their behalf last year – were left without jabs in arms.

Meanwhile, doses from AstraZeneca, which has production facilities in Belgium and the Netherlands, left the continent for Britain.

The UK has since become a world leader in its vaccination programme, within touching distance of its 15 million target by mid-February.

Markus Söder, who some believe could be the next German Chancellor, appeared to outline the bloc’s worries over the vaccine situation when he warned: “The time factor is crucial.

“If Israel, the US or the UK are far ahead of us in vaccination, they will also benefit economically.”

On the topic of Russia, it has been noted that the bloc, largely headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, will be careful in taking on President Vladimir Putin.

This is all the more relevant since countries like France and Germany will soon rely on the Nord Stream 2 tunnel for natural gas supplies directly from Russia.

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Robert Tombs, the renowned British historian, told that the EU has a tendency to downplay the significance of its opposition to the bloc’s machinations.

While this appears to be the case with the EU-Russia crisis, Prof Tombs said it was especially true of how much Brussels relied on Britain both politically and economically.

He said: “The importance of Britain for the EU is tended to be downplayed by the EU for obvious reasons, and also by Remainers in this country.

“But we are, after all, now its largest external customer.

“And for both France and Germany, we are the most profitable market in the sense of the market in which they have the largest trade surpluses.

“If there was a real disruption of trade between us it would certainly be bad for the UK, but it would also be very bad for the countries in Europe who are being suppliers.”


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The basic balance of trade between the UK and EU is that Britain buys more from the 27 member states than the other way round.

In 2017, the UK had a bilateral trade deficit of around £67billion, breaking down to a larger deficit of £95bn for goods, but a surplus of £28bn for services.

So on the face of it, member states were more at risk from any potential trade barriers – of which none were created, a result of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s free trade Brexit deal, negotiated by Lord David Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier.

Prof Tombs said the fact that the EU was tipped to lose more than the UK was a big factor in the 11th-hour agreement.

He said: “The EU realised they stood to lose: German car manufacturers, French farmers, the usual list of people who get mentioned – it’s true.

“We are a very important market for them and I think they realised they stood to lose a lot.”

He continued: “Politically, Europe with the UK was a lot bigger than it is now.

“And, the UK is after all Europe’s leading military power and probably, along with Germany, perhaps even more, its most influential world player in soft power, as well as in hard power.

“So I think it’s been a big loss for the EU – but we were always on the edges anyway.”

The UK has often been seen as the bridge between the US and Europe.

President Joe Biden made clear his opposition to Brexit, as he believed it would hinder the US’ ability to connect with the EU and forge a liberal democratic alliance against the likes of China and Russia.

Many argued that the UK leaving would only bring the US and EU closer together, and in fact isolate Britain on the world stage.

But the bloc’s moves in recent months appear to have reversed this claim.

In the waning days of 2020, the bloc signed a mammoth investment deal with China.

This flew in the face of Mr Biden’s pledge to stop China from becoming a dominant global force.

His team has since reached out specifically to the UK and Mr Johnson’s team in a bid to stop Beijing from “controlling” new technology, like what happened with Huawei and 5G.

‘This Sovereign Isle’, by Robert Tombs, is published by Allen Lane and out now. 

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