We will never forget 9/11. But it has not shaped us

What happened was huge, but the neocons have gone, and the Middle East and the west are not engaged

9/11 changed nothing. Obviously for the victims, and their families, it changed everything, for ever. But in geopolitical terms it was not a transformative event. The kaleidoscope was not shaken. The pieces never were in flux.

We're not supposed to say that, of course. The tenth anniversary of that appalling day requires appropriate commemoration, and, sadly, fan-fare. As such, it cannot simply be a footnote. It must be nothing less than the frame upon which the 21st century rests.

But the historic vantage point of September 11 is illusory. The fall of the twin towers were nowhere near comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The US invasion of Afghanistan was itself not even as significant as the invasion conducted by the Soviet Union two decades earlier. Bin Laden's killing will not outlast the impact and resonance of the death of figures such as Che Guvera, Steve Biko or Mohamed Bouazizi.

9/11 was the day that was supposed to have re-shaped the United States, transformed the Middle East and irrevocably altered our world. It did none of those things.

In the US we were promised, or threatened with, the dawning of a neo-conservative century. White Anglo-Saxon America would retreat behind a wall of steel, venturing forth occasionally to subjugate the hapless natives with another brutal lesson in shock and awe.

In fact, the neo-conservative century lasted another three years. Then hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, followed shortly after by the banking crash, and White Anglo-Saxon America realized you just can't build your walls high enough. Republican war hero John McCain was defeated by a black community activist named Hussein Obama, and Dick Cheney retired to begin work on his memoir In My Time.

Those who predicted change in the Middle East proved more prescient. Just. The toppling of Saddam was supposed to light a beacon of freedom that would illuminate the region. Until we stumbled across the descent into barbarism that was Abu Ghraib.

At the same time, Bush and Blair's reckless adventurism was supposed to have locked west and east into a new dance of death. Then the states of the Arab League gave NATO their blessing to impose a no-fly zone on Colonel Gaddafi, and cheering crowds in Tripoli's Green square celebrated his overthrow by waving the French tricolor.

Yes we have had our glimpse of the Arab spring. But not because of the actions of Khalid Mohammed or Blackwater Security. None of the freedom movements in Tunisia or Egypt or Libya were born on that clear, crisp New York morning.

And whilst much has changed, much has stayed the same. The Palestinians are still without a homeland; the Israelis without security in their own. The richest area of our planet is still ruled by faded monarchies and religious zealots and petty dictators. Their world, and the world of their people, hasn't turned.

Nor, in truth, has ours. The war on terror has touched, but not shaken us. Al-Qaeda have had less lasting impact in Britain than did the IRA, or ETA in Spain, or the Red Brigade in Italy. The fear they instil amongst those who still remember the Stasi is minimal. In Scandinavia, they watch for demons closer to home.

Of course there are tensions. Undercurrents. If you are a Muslim, suspicion and fear are companions. But the fact is those tensions have always been present. Thirty years ago, the signs read: "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish". Today, Muslims and asylum seekers would take their place. Except today, even after 9/11, such signs would be illegal.

Despite the apocalyptic premonitions, we do not live in a constant stage of siege. There are no bomb detectors at our tube stations, or five hour check-ins for our flights. There is a new terrorist hot-line, but hardly any of us have ever called it. Attempts to extend detention without trial have been, and gone.

Inevitably there have been those who have attempted to build a legacy out of the horrors of the previous decade. Nick Griffin was one, until last week, when the bailiffs arrived to repossess his Skoda. His party will soon follow.

Another was Stephen Lennon of the EDL, but his members can no longer march, and he can't walk the streets of his own city unless he is in disguise. Islam4UK never did make it down to Wootton Bassett, or to Luton, where the local Muslim community leaders informed them there presence wasn't welcome.

None of this is to diminish the enormity of what happened ten years ago this September. Or belittle the suffering of those who were directly involved, or touched by its aftermath.

But the neocons have gone. The Middle East and the west are not engaged in a new holy war. Repression and authoritarianism have not cast a long shadow over our society.

9/11 was a day none of us will ever forget. But it has not shaped us. The kaleidoscope still sits, and waits.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.