Transcript: Episode 23
What does Europe & the EU mean in a COVID world?
brexit, government, ucl, eu, people, uk, christina, parliament, deal, powers, border, vaccine, state, bit, trust, europe, point, realise, system, comply
Piet Eeckhout, Christina Pagel, Uta Staiger, Vivienne Parry
Vivienne Parry 00:04
Hello and welcome to Coronavirus: The Whole Story – UCL’s award winning podcast about Coronavirus and the groundbreaking often life saving and always fascinating research taking place right here at UCL. My name is Vivienne Parry. I'm a writer, broadcaster, UCL alumna, and your host for the past 23 episodes. This week's episode is all about Brexit, something that on its own would have been the greatest challenge faced by the UK this century. But yes, there's competition on that dubious honours board. And of course, it's coming from COVID now laying waste to both health and wealth worldwide. To help us understand how Brexit and COVID are intertwined. Our guest this week, experts in law, maths and the social and historical sciences, the more either terrick the mix, the more happy we are. My first guest this week is Dr Uta Staiger, the executive director and co founder of the UCL European Institute, and UCL’s pro Vice Provost for Europe, which researches and teaches modern European thought and has helped to shape UCL his relationship with research in Europe. More recently, she's been working on mitigating the impacts of Brexit on UCL’s European collaborations. I'm also joined by Professor Christina Pagel. From the Clinical Operational Research Unit, Christina uses mathematical modelling to help improve healthcare decision processes. And as a member of independent sage, the group of scientists providing independent research advice on COVID-19. And last but certainly not least, I'm joined by Professor Piet Eeckhout, a professor of EU law and Dean of the UCL Faculty of Laws, Piet’s, the Academic Director of the UCL European Institute, and a leading authority in international economic law. His current research is focused on how different legal systems interact with and affect each other. So, Christina, as we head into autumn and a second wave, what do you see as the key challenge for government in the next month or two.
Christina Pagel 02:13
In many ways, the key challenges are even now just over the next week, as COVID is accelerating. So basically, they have two ways of trying to get a handle on on the spread of COVID in the UK right now. The first is just to stop infected people from mixing with non infected people. And ideally, you would do that with contact tracing. So you'd find infected cases and their contacts and you isolate them and everyone else can carry on, we're not doing that well enough. And so that's, that's why you kind of got these measures of, you know, how do you stop people mixing? Do you cause pubs to change opening hours? Do you stop households mixing? And then there's the kind of things that okay, well, if we do get an effective person mixing with a non infected person, how do you stop at transmitting, and that's where you use mass, social distancing, ventilation, meeting, outdoors, and so on. And I think the key challenge for the government is how strongly do they force people not to mix while still keeping the economy alive, and people on side, because actually, you know, what we're learning is the COVID, spreading through no social interaction, it's through people meeting up with each other, both in the home and in pubs and bars. And it's very difficult to police and you don't really want to police it. So it relies on people voluntarily complying with guidance. And so you need to take the population with you, you need people to trust you. You need people to be able to afford to isolate if they're asked to. And so there's kind of a lot of really difficult decision making to be done about how do you get that balance right between controlling the virus, keeping your population with you, and also trying to protect the economy as much as you can?
Vivienne Parry 03:45
Okay, so that's a major piece of work to be policed on its own. But Piet, we're also heading into the final state of the Brexit negotiations. What can we expect to happen in the next month or two?
Piet Eeckhout 03:59
It's a good question. I think everyone would like to know the answer to that one. Who knows, maybe I'm happy to take a punt. And if I'm wrong, I'm just wrong. And if I'm right, then you've heard it first on UCL COVID podcast. So first point is I think there will be a deal. And I think there will be a deal because increasingly, on both sides, everyone is realising that no deal would be unsustainable. And that if there is no deal in time for the end of the year, first of January when the transition period ends, that the negotiations would have to continue anyway, because no deal just is not a sustainable position to be in.
Vivienne Parry 04:43
It's not a sustainable position to be in because we are in the middle of COVID. Or would that have happened even without COVID?
Piet Eeckhout 04:52
Well, I mean, there has been a view around this summer that because of COVID, and the massive hit to the economy, for which COVID is responsible that the effects of Brexit would sort of go unnoticed. But But I think that's just the wrong way of looking at it. But it would very much aggravate what would already be quite bad effects. I mean, the way I think I look at it is that increasingly COVID is a is a demand side shock. Because people just can't so to spend in the ways that they would otherwise do on many things. And no deal Brexit would be a supply side shock, because normal ways of trading and importing and exporting would be heavily affected. So those two adding together, I think, would be a really very bad thing. And anyone sensible would realise that, I think,
Vivienne Parry 05:44
yeah, and the government hadn't covered themselves in glory in terms of, you know, competent administration. So I think that the public is, is now beginning to worry. Also, let's turn to Europe. How are the EU institutions looking at both COVID and Brexit?
Uta Staiger 06:04
Well, that's also rather interesting. Obviously, the member states themselves also face the same challenge, as we do here with with COVID. And some like, like Germany have fared better than others, such as Spain, although I'm certainly not the expert to go into the reasons for why. And the EU itself was, I suppose, rather late to act or it was criticised for being late to get in into action. And when it did, it started off, particularly with things such as common procurement schemes for PPE - schemes, incidentally, to which the UK was invited, of course, and which they better offer the they decided to decline. And I think that's possibly a gesture that's more to Brexit thinking than to public health considerations. But when the EU did get its act together, and it was it was rather forceful, so if you remember, back in July, EU leaders reached a deal on a whopping 750 billion euros to reconstruct Europe after after COVID to sort of prop up the economy. So then that included the radix, sort of grandly titled recovery and resilience facility. And for many, it was a sort of watershed moment, if you like, a sort of Hamiltonian moment, even as some called it, because it gives Brussels sort of unprecedented powers to borrow on financial markets together, and hand the thumbs out to member states. And many were saying in the EU that such an agreement wouldn't really have been possible had the UK been been part of it as a as a member state [Vivienne: because we would have been difficult?] Well, there's different philosophies towards European integration, which obviously, is one of the reasons that we, you know, that UK voted to leave the EU, there was never a great amount of love for the idea of further integration. But if you borrow together, if you take up debt together, then that requires an awful lot more of integration in longer term, than probably would have sat comfortably with with the UK Government. So yes,
Vivienne Parry 07:59
I want to look at some of the specific areas where the kind of COVID and and Brexit overlap, I was thinking actually on one areas of technology, because, you know, test and trace is a big issue for us here. But But of course test and trace is something that, you know, would need to cover the whole of Europe. Christina, what are your thoughts on that?
Christina Pagel 08:23
Well, it's quite, it's quite an interesting thing. So Germany probably has the best contact tracing system in Europe, and they went from the very beginning with a very localised design and they were actually helped by having quite a federalized system anyway. So states had a lot of autonomy. And that's worked really well, whereas in the UK, they went quite centralised approach, which is what less well, simply because if you're using a call centre, and then someone doesn't answer the phone, or they give you the wrong phone number, there's literally nothing you can do about it. Whereas if you have a local approach, you can kind of knock on doors and interrupt people that way. Technology wise, and most, a lot of Europe developed apps. And they used kind of standard, what called API's developed by Google and Apple that had a lot of data privacy built in Germany actually changed its app quite early on because of privacy concerns and kind of listened to concerns and carried on. And people kind of assumed that we would do the same here. And we did it. And we decided to do our own bespoke app that if you may remember, this tried out in the Isle of Wight, and then they decided that they couldn't get it to work. And there were too many privacy concerns and so on. And so they abandoned it. And they also kind of seemed to base their entire test and trace system on an app instead of actual contact tracing and app only ever supports it or can't replace it. And then of course, they have just released the NHS app a couple of weeks ago. It's pretty good. And it's based on exactly the same Google Apple API's that other people have been using for several months. So I think that actually is quite interesting in the context of Brexit because I think it does speak to that kind of vein of British exceptionalism that you kind of see in the government a bit that they kind of assume that, that we have to do it our own way. And you've seen that in COVID. You know, you saw it when when things were going really badly and asleep getting your watch somehow people but it wouldn't happen here.
Vivienne Parry 10:12
Uta, how about the border technology? Because this is going to become increasingly important. In fact, it's already we can see becoming a big issue. What about say, Kent?
Uta Staiger 10:24
Yes. So of course, we've got to remember that when we leave the transition period, we will just have a new border with the EU no matter what what deal we get if we get a deal as I as Piet thinks we do. And I hope he's right. But we’ll be leaving the single market and be leaving the Customs Union. So there will be a new border. And with borders, quite naturally come come frictions and so that new customs and regulatory checks, certification boards, and all of those really complicated a sort of paperwork and encoding systems that only the real trade ones understand. But a lot of the way about this working is because if down to an IT system that can manage all of this, usually for imports and exports, data is submitted in advance and, and electronically. And of course, it's significant because we just trade so much with the EU. And being an island, of course, the border crossing points are limited. So Kent was always going to be the crunch point. Now, I suppose the government has known this for for a very long time. But the preparations are not to phrase it politely where they should be. Right. So this and logistics the whole sector, they need very clear guidance to understand what the new regulations are, what the paperwork is that they need to fill in what the customs formalities are. And obviously, the new IT system needs to work flawlessly. And we have now had an the newest version of the so called border operating model published today and not a trademark, and it's 300 pages long. So I haven't read it. But people who have say it does provide a lot more information to the sector. And so that's very helpful, but it is simply quite quite late and the IT system isn't up yet. It's not fully running and fully tested. And in addition to that, Kent is obviously interesting, because we'll have an additional border issue like with Kent, the Kent road access permit, which has two funny acronyms quoted either crap or Kermit. But basically, the access permit means that you're trying to prevent chaos at the port by by causing chaos somewhere else to exit. Exactly. Because effectively the government fear quite rightly, that people won't necessarily have submitted the right paperwork by the time to reach the port. And obviously, they tried to avoid chaos there. So our capacity, the UK government's capacity to instigate, you know, to install a system that's fully working and up and running as soon as possible after January the first is quite crucial.
Vivienne Parry 12:48
You're not filling me with a huge amount of confidence here, Uta. Piet can I turn to that other and even more disputed border that with Northern Ireland? What arrangements are going to be in place there?
Piet Eeckhout 13:02
Good question. The Northern Ireland border, of course, is not sort of focused on on a single point point. Dover, Calais, but is, is quite a large border. And so there the issue is, is a bit different, because obviously, everyone wants to keep that border open. But in order to do so the UK and the EU still need to agree on a lot of detail on how the system of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will work. And then particularly questions such as which goods, which are exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, if I can use that term here are at risk of being moved into Ireland, which would then mean that EU tariffs would have to apply instead of, of no tariffs where they are different from UK tariffs. So on all of that, I think there's not just a technological complexity, but there's a complexity of In fact, making still quite basic agreements on on how this would work. I would just want to add something on what Christina said about the app, which we currently have just to say that a scholar from from UCL from UCL laws has been very heavily involved in developing the app, which was used, first used in Europe and which protects privacy, this is Michael Veale, and he's been saying for many months, everywhere on the media that the UK should should follow that same approach and he has been vindicated. So if only the government were to listen a bit better to people at UCL
Vivienne Parry 14:40
that will send them a copy of the podcast, obviously required listening for all policymakers. Christina, how do we make and comply with rules in the Brexit era?
Christina Pagel 14:52
Yeah, I think the way science has informed COVID policy and how that's communicated, I think has But I can't say for sure it will be different without Brexit. But it seems to me that it's different. And I suspect the certainly early on in the pandemic, the government was listening pretty closely to scientific advisors and follow their advice. But ever since we kind of came over the peak, I think there's been greater and greater divergence between that and there's been quite a lot of secrecy. So, you know, they, they've kind of sideline stage to have the join by a Security Council, which is now apparently advising on COVID policy, but there's we don't know who's on it. We there's no minutes about it, we have no idea of what the thresholds are for action, what exactly the strategy is, how they're making their decisions, they've stopped doing the daily press conferences, the messaging has got a lot more confused to the point when they're like, you know, hundreds of jokes on the internet about different combinations of rules that you have to do in COVID. You know, I think when you start having jokes about quite serious government policy, you realise the messaging is not not working. And I've kind of seen, what I think is really interesting is that the behavioural subgroup in sage, and you look at their minutes, they have been consistently advising that the government needs to have clear messaging, to be honest, to engender trust, to create sense of solidarity, to be very specific to admit uncertainty to admit mistakes, and the government basically hasn't been doing that at all. And I wonder whether that's something that's kind of a hangover of how they talk about Brexit, where it's always the rosiest possible picture is what's presented to the public. And I actually think that's quite damaging, damaging to public trust and compliance.
Vivienne Parry 16:32
Water. What about the tensions between order and justice? And, you know, rights at the time of this crisis?
Uta Staiger 16:43
Well, you could look at it like this in a times of a huge crisis emergencies, if you like, states states, phases are very clear dilemma, right? So they need to tackle the emergency Of course, but they often the they take actions that constrain our individual rights at that point, or even the division of powers. And but if they don't do that, then the state as such might, might also well be threatened. So they are between a rock and a hard place. And in many ways, they did obviously, introduce things that were previously unthinkable, for example, state issuing stay at home orders or, or closing businesses, it's under normal circumstances, impossible to think. But they were fully accepted. They even called for, by, by, by by citizens in the country. But that's also a question of trust. So people need to trust that the government takes the right decisions, where this is where the policy decisions come in Cristina's talked about. And it's also going to be done in the right way. And in the country. Quite recently, there wasn't even a lot of significant ruckus about the fact that government really issued a lot of the regulations without consulting Parliament's without giving Parliament a chance to review the measures. Now, I think it's it can't be a fundamental, fundamentally extendable principle, this right, you have to come to a point where you both come out of that crisis, or at least manage it differently. And I think what we see in the UK, response to covid is, on the one hand, that people begin to question whether the government handles this one, right. And that questioning might also be determined, by the way they see the government handling Brexit. So if you begin to think the government may not have a handle on this, on the other crisis, obviously, that will compound into into bigger lack of trust and move the other. Second thing is, is that sort of tendency towards executive power. Now they've seen this with Kavita, they said, but we've seen it on Brexit, particularly the current government has consistently sought to scale back the involvement and the scrutiny, both of Parliament and the court. And I think there is a certain concern here with the two things coming together that they're sliding towards an ever more executives driven style. I've actually
Vivienne Parry 18:57
that's what we've seen in some other European countries, isn't it that COVID has been an opportunity to seize more executive power and particularly of Orban in Hungary.
Uta Staiger 19:07
Yeah. Oh, that's the classic example, of course. And then some of that powers has actually been legislated in such vague terms, they could technically, you know, make this indefinite sort of state of affairs. That's not where we are yet, but I think we have seen a certain attitude in government to increasingly sideline other constitutional actors. And and that is, that is a tendency that one might want to sort of get away from as we, as we try to get a handle on this crisis. Peter,
Vivienne Parry 19:37
this circumventing of Parliament is a real concern, isn't it to the lawyers?
Piet Eeckhout 19:44
No, absolutely. I think it's a it's a huge challenge to not only the role of Parliament, but even the rule of law itself and the sort of balance between the different constitutional actors and it's in a Since quite I mean, in that sense, Brexit and COVID, run a bit in parallel, because COVID, of course, is an emergency. And that kind of leads to bigger powers greater powers being granted to the executive. But in the UK, this has already happened, of course, with Brexit to withdrawal Act, which is enforced as given the government huge powers to change legislation once the transition period ends, we haven't seen that power being used yet very much, because we are not yet at the end of this transition period. But in all likelihood, it will be and it's pretty paradoxical to see that a campaign for leaving the European Union, which which was heavily predicated on the slogan, let's take back control. And we should be making our own laws. Apparently, it's not for parliament to make the laws very much but for, for the executive. And if you look at, for example, the current negotiations on on the agreement with the EU, in fact, the European Parliament will have a final say on this will have to consent to the new agreement. But as Currently, the UK legislation stance the UK Parliament will not have that, say, to agree to trade agreements, and and the combination of of the two is really quite worrying, because it does completely I mean, it I'm reinforcing what simply what it has been saying that we see this enormous shift more executive power,
Vivienne Parry 21:27
and it undermines our reputation considerably, doesn't it?
Piet Eeckhout 21:29
Well, what's what has been happening with with this internal market bill as it's currently before parliament and statement by a minister before Parliament's that the government wants to enact the ability to breach international law? We've been, I've been speaking to quite some colleagues about this. And there's actually no one who can point to any other examples worldwide, even of the worst regimes where a regime would expressly articulate in its own legislation, that it's not going to comply with international norms. We know for example, that President Trump doesn't really like international norms very much, but you will not find any kind of official legal text adopted by the US government, where they proclaim that they are not going to comply with certain international commitments. So that is really, very worrying and wholly unprecedented, even worldwide, I think,
Vivienne Parry 22:26
are listening to if I may say so a slightly gloomy edition of Coronavirus the whole story, a podcast brought to you by UCL Minds and if there's a question about Coronavirus, you'd like our researchers to answer, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at UCL. Now I'm heading for further gloomy areas, which is really to think about what kind of disruption and cooperation we might see in the new year, Christina? First of all, how would supply chain failings affect the UK was COVID response
Christina Pagel 23:11
I don't know how much this isn't kind of public knowledge. I mean, it has been reported about a bit. But basically one of the things that did help us in March is that the drug companies and hospitals and the NHS had put in a bit of a Brexit stockpile of drugs and supplies, and they used it up. So we no longer have a Brexit stockpile, really of drugs or other medical supplies. And so when you combine that with a second wave that may last well into the new year, and Brexit and winter flu, we could be in quite a difficult place
Vivienne Parry 23:44
in January. Indeed, I know that our vaccine production depends on the the installation of a vaccine fill machine which has been supplied from Germany, but which Oh joy of joys would be caught up in the chaos, so we can't extract it. So it's not just, you know, packets of pills, there are much more substantial items with no
Christina Pagel 24:11
any I mean, if you just think about the vaccine programme, if there's a vaccine middle of next year, and they want to vaccinate the whole population, or even 50% of the population. It's not just about the vaccine supply, it's the supply of needles, it's the supply of staff, it's the supply know all of those things in a supply chain that make that possible, including, you know, refrigeration, the cold chain, all of it that the UK I doubt very much doubt has the capacity to do that without needing international trade. And so if that all gets clogged up after after December, then then it makes it you know, 10 times more challenging.
Vivienne Parry 24:49
And the listener Can I mentioned vials, the vials that vaccines go in, which are produced using a special sound. They're made in Italy To me, Pete, from you, what can we expect in terms of disruption in either Deal or No Deal scenarios?
Piet Eeckhout 25:10
Yeah, well, obviously deal should be a bit better than no deal. Although in terms of immediate shock, I think the difference is overrated. Because even in the event of a deal, it will still mean that all the trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union will have to pass through customs and will have to be checked and, and there won't be customs duties, but but we still will have checks where none exists at present. No Deal, of course, would really be very bad. And I'm worried because I think we've all been lulled into a bit of a sense of complacency around it. It's been talked about for so many years now, it hasn't really happened yet. And people may think, Well, you know, it's kind of this this thing, I fear, but since for many years, it doesn't happen, it probably isn't going to be this bad. And that will translate into the level of preparations. And even the ability of course, of business to prepare for, for no deal is pretty limited. These days, though, I really worry about what what will happen on on the first of January, certainly in a no deal scenario, but even even in a deal scenario, because a lot is going to change
Vivienne Parry 26:28
a few thank goodness, we're all stocked up on toilet rolls are said to be to be serious, there is going to be I suspect, a much longer term impact on trust and reputation, particularly among other members of the European Union.
Uta Staiger 26:44
I think so yes. I mean, it is, it will be hard to see because some of some of it is definitely to do with with those who dominate discourse right now. So if you imagine that you have a different sort of government in a few years time, or, or somesuch, then that there, you know, there is a lots of things that can be, can be can be changed, I think at the moment that difficulty is that the government doesn't seem to quite realise just how its star has sunk. So the Foreign Secretary the other day, said, you know, internal market bill and the fallout from that hasn't really tarnished our reputation as an international actor. Well, it has, it has greatly and has amongst member states, and if the European Union, but also interestingly, among electorates of public opinion, if you look at member states of the EU 27 public opinion, quite famous, the EU playing hardball now in the negotiations, and that is not something that that we started out with. I do think that trust is just a huge part of how we deal with each other internationally, it is obviously a lot about tactics and strategy and cooperation, and, but you do work with those you trust. And obviously, the worst sign that you can give is if you say, Well, I'm, I'm negotiating in good faith, and I'm assigning something and then I backtrack from that in in a matter of in a matter of months. So that that is going to be a lingering memory, that that is shared internationally. And it will, of course, have some practical consequences. So look at the current negotiations and governance mechanisms, one of the outstanding areas for negotiation seems to have progressed quite well. But since then, town market belt government, the US side now wants much stricter conditions and dispute resolution and some such because they no longer quite trusted the UK to stand by its word. So you know, we will see how it develops over the long, longer term. But for the moment, at least, you know, we would probably have lost some of the the excellent reputation that we've had previously.
Vivienne Parry 28:41
And of course, this does have a direct impact on COVID because collaboration is absolutely essential between countries because we are an island but we are not alone. Our future relies on everybody cooperating on vaccines on medicines with COVID. So it's it's a very great concern. I want to finish the programme by giving you each as I sometimes do on this podcast, a magic wand. Now this magic wand, you can't magic away the results of the referendum. But what I want you to do with your magic wand is what one thing would help us to get through Coronavirus and Brexit together. So let me start with at Pete
Piet Eeckhout 29:34
Well, I think a sensible deal in the coming in the coming weeks, which will still be a limit limited deal but one which at least builds a bit of trust again between the EU and the UK and which is a basis for moving into 2021 and future years from a slightly different perspective in terms of relationship one which looks again at how can we cooperate in a way which is different from the UK being a member state, but still cooperate with the EU in so many areas where cooperation is needed? And certainly COVID? and all of its dimensions and effects need that, too.
Vivienne Parry 30:17
Christina, what about you? What would you do with your magic wand, do
Christina Pagel 30:20
something a bit more esoteric, and I would try and I try and reduce the nationalistic, portcullis kind of rhetoric and get the hope that the government embraces a bit more complexity. I feel like there's just been this kind of push towards going for the simple answer the magic, but it's solution and Brexit and and COVID. And a kind of a reluctance to learn from mistakes, which I think is really dangerous and kind of acknowledging that, yes, we can learn from each other. That Yes, other countries have done better other countries have done worse. And I kind of feel as if as this kind of desire to always say, Well, we've done it the best we're doing it the best never kind of going back and saying we're going to do it differently, I think is really, really quite damaging and mean even just for the vaccine year, they built it as the Oxford vaccine, the great British thing and you know, it's an international team of scientists, why can't we celebrate that and not try candidate kind of nationalistic about it?
Vivienne Parry 31:15
Let's come to you last of all on this. What about you? What would you do with your magic wand to get us through these twin crises? And so yeah,
Uta Staiger 31:24
Christina has used some magic power. And let's say what I was going to say, unless you make me think about this is probably quite similar, but goes to both sides. And this, I suppose all the different sides, which is just a level of people just stop pretending that there are black and white answers to these things. And that so Brexit is neither going to destroy this country, nor is it going to be the sunlit uplands and people have have thought about that's going to be difficult and tricky, and not very good. But it's going to we're going to manage it in the end. And something's going to go to come out of it. And the EU is neither the big body in this case, nor is it you know, a panacea and the Nobel Prize incarnate. It's just besides trying to come to grips with a situation which I think a lot of people regret and we could have really saved ourselves from but you know, we'll just have to try and make the best, best off. And the only way you're going to go about this properly is just to own up to that.
Vivienne Parry 32:26
Well, very sensible and pragmatic advice, I think with your with your wand, all of you. So thank you to all of you. I think it's been a fascinating discussion. You've been listening to Coronavirus the whole story. This episode was presented by myself Vivienne Parry, produced by UCL with support from the UCL health of the public and UCL grand challenges and edited by the wonderful Cerys Bradley. Our guests today were Dr Uta Staiger and Professors Christina Pagel and Piet Eeckhout. If you'd like to hear more of these podcasts from UCL Minds, of course, you would subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk forward slash Coronavirus. This podcast is brought to you by UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content and activities open to everyone. Hope to be with you again soon. Bye for now.