Sunday

17th Oct 2021

Opinion

Brexit, tabloid 'sulks', and AstraZeneca

  • Britain's right-wing tabloid, the Daily Mail. But the best-selling Rupert Murdoch-owned The Sun also picked up on innocuous comments by the Italian minister

Having spent almost five years living in Brexit Britain, the tabloids' hostility towards the EU comes as no surprise to me. However, I was surprised to discover the theories surrounding the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in which European countries are accused of deliberately punishing the UK.

Even pro-European friends sent me messages exasperated at the 'short-sightedness' and 'dirty tactics' of the Europeans, blinded by a hatred of the 'Oxford jab'.

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But where did the belief that the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine was about Brexit come from?

One explanation highlights the tabloid-constructed narratives which have massive influence over public opinion, where isolated quotes by European officials were used to suit ideological agendas.

One such quote was given by Nicola Magrini, the head of the Italian medicine regulator, in which he describes the suspension as a 'political' choice on the 15 March.

On 16 March, the Daily Mail explained Magrini's comments with reference to an anonymous Conservative MP who claimed that "Brexit sulk" motivated the decision.

One day later, the same quote is used to substantiate the argument that a hypothetical 'Heidelberg' or 'Toulouse' vaccine would not have received the same treatment as the Oxford vaccine.

Finally, on 18 March, Magrini's comments are transformed into "Italy admit[ing] the decision was a political one", reinforcing the narrative of European attacks on the UK as 'smokescreen' to hide their own failings.

The Sun also picked up on Magrini's comments. On the 17 March, the quote was placed directly under a "Brexit Sulk'" subheading with no context and separate from the rest of Magrini's statement.

Immediately after, unrelated comments by the French Europe minister about separate supply issues with AstraZeneca were used to create the false impression that the French government admitted the suspension was both political and Brexit related.

The German domino

A closer look at the events, however, shows that instead of a conspiracy the decision was old-fashioned bureaucratic caution.

The main protagonist in this narrative is the Paul-Ehrlich Institute, the German independent body in charge of monitoring vaccinations equivalent to the Medical and Heathcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK.

After identifying blood clots from people who had taken the vaccine, the institute advised the government to suspend AstraZeneca vaccinations until further investigations had been completed, a heavily-criticised move.

Angela Merkel's coalition in Berlin faced a conundrum.

Ignoring the advice would have made them vulnerable to accusations of disregarding their own independent experts as well as lowering trust in the AstraZeneca vaccine further.

On the other hand, suspending vaccinations would slow down an already-mismanaged vaccine rollout and do little to shore up confidence in the safety of the 'Oxford' jab. The latter option was, again, viewed as the more cautious one.

Soon after, Germany's decision to suspend vaccinations was replicated by other European countries.

Importantly, Magrini's comments about "political" choice was a critique of European governments giving in to the pressure from their constituents who were worried about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, not because of a political agenda to punish the UK.

In the end, the Paul Ehrlich institute caused a chain reaction, culminating in an outcome that has hampered European vaccine rollouts.

The implication that the German government cares more about punishing the UK for Brexit than vaccinating its own population is false.

A Continental conspiracy?

If the Daily Mail and Sun are correct, the German government would have had to pressure its own independent regulators to manufacture fears over blood clots and then use these as an excuse to halt AstraZeneca vaccinations - for a week - to attack the UK.

Furthermore, the supposed benefit of the suspension for Germany is elusive.

Damaging the reputation of a British-Swedish pharma company does little to reduce the evident success the UK has had in vaccinating its population.

Instead, scrutiny of the contrasting vaccination outcomes was actually reinforced by the suspension.

Meanwhile, the downside of the move is obvious. Pressuring an independent regulator would risk a much greater political scandal than any MP corruption affair currently embroiling the CDU.

Slow vaccine rollouts have seriously harmed the German government in the polls and the AstraZeneca suspension has certainly not helped.

Is it plausible that the German government is so obsessed with harming the UK that it plunged its own vaccination rollout into chaos?

The alternative explanation - an overly cautious regulator putting the government in a difficult position - is much less exciting, but much more likely.

The British tabloids' obsession with framing every relevant decision made in the EU as a hostile act to constrain the UK's post-Brexit ascendancy hurts UK-EU relations.

With the end of the Brexit negotiations, those who value good relations need to continue challenging the same false narratives - peddled for ideological reasons - which caused the Brexit mess to begin with.

Just because Brexit has happened does not make them any less damaging.

Author bio

Jonas Fleega is a German graduate of the London School of Economics, with an MSc in the political economy of Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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Irrespective of whether or not the decision to pause the AstraZeneca vaccine was political, it is clear that governments around the world are not solely basing their vaccination rollout on scientific evidence.

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