A breakup in the midst of a pandemic: depolarising the UK-EU relationship

Dominique Harvey

COVID-19 striking so soon after the UK’s official departure from the EU, and prior to the signing of a trade agreement, has provided a huge obstacle to concluding the almost five-year chapter of Brexit.

The pandemic was not only a distraction, but it also dragged out a strained phase in the UK-EU relationship, building up more tension and mistrust – it encouraged rivalry, reopened old wounds and pushed back the possibility of a new and different kind of relationship.

The debate around the UK-EU relationship is an example of polarisation in action. Polarisation refers to people’s division into two or more groups who strongly dislike and distrust each other and can have strongly differing perspectives. It is more likely to occur where there is uncertainty and a fear for the future, which is exactly the kind of environment that COVID has created.

Polarisation between the UK and EU, in simple terms, occurred originally due to disagreements as to the relative benefits and costs of being within the union. It was exacerbated due to heated disagreements over Brexit negotiations, and COVID-19 has only served to deepen this divide.

Here, we take a look at what communications lessons can be learned from the UK-EU relationship, looking at events of the past 12 months through the lens of Engine MHP’s guide to ‘Communicating in a Polarised World’.

‘Winners and Losers’

The global nature of the pandemic created a dangerous narrative of ‘winners and losers’. We all got used to seeing daily charts comparing infection rates, death rates, vaccination rates and R numbers in a league table and these numbers reinforced existing perceptions. With Brexit yet to be concluded, this narrative and resulting rivalry was particularly salient between the UK and the EU.

In the case of the UK, it endeavoured to ‘make a success of Brexit’ and show its ability to stand strong alone by more effectively navigating the crisis. The European Commission on the other hand, was set on displaying a united front and providing a raison d’etre by showing that its 27 members were better off together than apart; it fixed on the joint pooling of the vaccination program, co-ordinated by itself, as the key effort to highlight its relevance in this situation.

COVID-19 therefore became a moment for each party to prove itself, taking on the characteristics of a competition as to who could manage this crisis better; develop the more successful strategy and contain the virus more efficiently, secure an effective vaccine and sufficient doses faster, vaccinate their populations quicker, and come out the least politically and economically scathed in the longer term.

‘Vaccine wars’ and vaccine nationalism

The vaccine procurement and delivery process became a flashpoint for this polarised rivalry, a situation that has been exacerbated by some press coverage. In the eyes of the UK, it had got off the blocks early with securing vaccines, and vaccine doses would be delivered as agreed. From the viewpoint of Brussels, with its contracted supplies compromised, it was the UK acting in vicious self-interest by prioritising the vaccination of all of its citizens, preventing priority groups across Europe being protected. Both sides were set on working on their own terms.

Trust between both sides has been lost by careless public statements. Comments such as Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s remark that the UK was the first in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine because “we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators – much better than the French, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have”, came across as boastful and provocative and only served to fuel polarisation, although there has been a notable change in tone by the UK Government in recent months

Reversing the trend

‘Communicating in a Polarised World’ sets out the tribal nature of humans and our tendency to unite around shared narratives and values. It is this inherent nature that could be harnessed and applied on a larger scale in a first step towards depolarisation when it comes to UK-EU relations.

The two sides share many of the same values and priorities, including a commitment to address climate change and improve political stability in Europe. These could provide some much-needed common ground to bridge the chasm in the current relationship and debate.

Depolarisation will also require a shift in communication. The pandemic has shown how antagonising the other side by telling them they’re wrong, using zero-sum arguments, provoking them by claiming superiority, and manufacturing threats that foster fear and mistrust do nothing to resolve the situation and in fact have an opposite result. This provocative approach to communication is to the detriment of all the progress that could be achieved if cooperation formed the basis of relations.

Depolarisation is perhaps particularly crucial at this point in terms of the challenges facing the UK and the EU in the coming months and years. Public confidence in the future is low following the debate around EU-UK relations and the effects of COVID-19, with recent debate creating an oppressive environment in which only 37% of people say they feel comfortable expressing their political beliefs at work (a finding from our recent Networked Age Polarisation Research).

At a time when minds are focused on the significant challenge of rebuilding post-COVID and addressing wider issues around democratic challenges in certain EU countries and Scottish independence in the UK, now is a critical time to channel efforts towards collaboration and the common ground we share – rather than areas of opposition.