In the twilight of Brexit talks, Europe sent Brits a message about borders

Some in the UK can't help feel that EU states' Covid border closures were really about politics

A police car passes trucks parked on the M20 motorway in Operation Stack near Ashford, U.K., on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Britain's biggest port stopped all traffic heading to Europe, triggering delays to food supplies after the discovery of a new variant of the virus prompted a wave of countries to ban travel from the U.K. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
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With the world facing ever greater challenges, there is a pressing need for the Western alliance to demonstrate unity. Yet, the speed with which European states have been willing to isolate Britain over the sudden rise in coronavirus infections has laid bare the deep divisions that currently lie within the European comity of nations.

The official explanation for the decision by the overwhelming majority of European governments, beginning with France, to ban British residents earlier in the week from entry was that the discovery by British scientists of a new, more virulent strain of the Covid-19 virus poised a clear and present danger to their nations’ well-being. France has now re-opened its border with the UK under strict conditions, but it is worth reflecting on what the events of this week really meant.

Despite calls from the WHO and other international bodies, including the EU secretariat, for European leaders to work together to overcome the coronavirus pandemic, the decision by so many of them to respond unilaterally demonstrated that, when faced with the choice between fostering co-operation and protecting their own national interests, they opted for the latter without, apparently, a moment’s hesitation.

The willingness of individual EU member states to subordinate the well-being of Europe as a whole is not a new phenomenon. From the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s to the Iraq war in 2003, European leaders have displayed a dismaying propensity to go their own way. The inclination of EU member states to pressure less fortunate members of the alliance was also very much in evidence during the Greek financial crisis, when wealthier nations like Germany insisted upon implementing punitive financial terms on Athens in return for an EU bail-out.

So, the willingness of so many of these countries to abandon Britain in its hour of need with the closure of its ports in the Strait of Dover – one of the UK’s main trading routes with Europe – once again makes a mockery of the concept of European unity.

Perhaps the most significant political feature of the border closures, imposed mere hours after the new strain of the virus was announced, was that they were done unilaterally by individual governments without consultation with the EU commission. Indeed, it was only after the EU intervened that France was reluctantly persuaded to reach an agreement to reopen the border with the mass testing of lorry drivers stuck on either side.

The timing certainly made life for ordinary Britons, who are already struggling with a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases and nationwide lockdowns, a great deal more difficult. It ended, without any notice, any chance Britons with ties across the Channel may have had of joining family and friends for the festive break. It also raised the possibility of food shortages, as much-needed supplies for major supermarkets were stuck on the French side of the border.

And while the deal agreed between Paris and London now paves the way for a gradual relaxation of controls, the requirement that all travellers from the UK – including EU citizens – must first prove they are not carrying the virus means that further delays will be inevitable, given the scarcity of tests available to the general public. Supermarket bosses are predicting shortages of certain foods, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, well into next month.

DOVER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 24: A firefighter from France swabs a lorry driver to test for Covid-19 on December 24, 2020 in Dover, United Kingdom. Travel from the UK to France gradually resumed on Wednesday morning after being suspended for more than two days due to concerns about a new strain of covid-19. The British government deployed its Track and Trace team to administer Covid-19 tests to lorry drivers  waiting to cross at Dover. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A firefighter from France swabs a lorry driver to test for Covid-19 on December 24, 2020 in Dover, UK. Getty
When faced with the choice between co-operation and national interests, European leaders opted for the latter

European leaders have been quick to emphasise that all of this is entirely coronavirus-related, and had nothing to do with the problematic Brexit negotiations, the conclusion of which was days overdue. But there are suspicions in London that part of the motivation among at least some European leaders for closing borders with such haste so close to the Brexit deadline was to increase the pressure on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And, at the same time, they were demonstrating to the British people the difficulties they are likely to encounter if the negotiations were to end without agreement on a new trade deal.

These suspicions appeared to be confirmed by Guy Verhofstadt, the anti-Brexit Belgian politician, who tweeted about Britain’s predicament: “They will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means…”

With EU President Ursula von der Leyen now calling upon member states to end the travel ban with Britain, the hardline position adopted by the likes of Mr Verhofstadt is unlikely to be maintained for long. Nevertheless, the conduct of so many of these countries towards their British neighbour has exposed the divisions and rivalries that continue to affect relations between some of Europe’s major powers, with all that means for the future of Western co-operation.

This makes for particularly troubling for US President-elect Joe Biden, who has said that he intends to make reviving the Western alliance one of his main priorities after he assumes office next month. After the divisions that have appeared within the transatlantic alliance over incumbent President Donald Trump’s confrontational attitude with key European figures, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Biden says he wants to restore a sense of unity and purpose so that the West can present a credible counterweight to the emerging power of China and the longstanding rivalry with Russia.

For this to happen, Mr Biden needs Washington’s European allies to present a united front and work together towards a common goal. But, as the events on the British border of the past few days have demonstrated, solidarity is running short in Europe. The continent’s ability to play a role in supporting the kind of kinship and united vision on the world stage that Mr Biden hopes for is not something that can be taken for granted.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National