The government’s spin machine did its best to portray the Christmas Eve Brexit deal as a triumph. Boris Johnson boasted of bringing “good tidings of great joy”. Michael Gove anticipated “a new more hopeful chapter in our history”. The UK’s chief negotiator David Frost spoke of “a moment of national renewal”. Downing Street’s mouthpiece – the Daily Express – hailed “Our New Golden Age”.
In truth the deal falls far short of what the Brexiteers promised. Rather than ensuring “frictionless trade” and “the exact same benefits” of European Union membership, it will erect barriers that did not previously exist. It will require the employment of more customs agents than all of Brussels’ reviled “Eurocrats” combined. It will do little for the service industries that comprise 80 per cent of our economy. It will certainly not generate a £350m-a-week bonus for the NHS. It is far worse than the arrangements we enjoyed as a member state.
That said, the deal avoids the economic Armageddon of no-deal, and thus produces what Michael Heseltine called “the sense of relief of a condemned man informed that his execution has been commuted to a life sentence”.
But the focus on tariffs, quotas and fish stocks misses the much bigger picture – and the reason why millions of passionate Remainers like myself will feel a profound sense of sorrow and shame when Britain completes its divorce from the EU on New Year’s Eve.
We will be turning our backs not on some economic construct, but on the greatest and noblest experiment in international collaboration the world has known, and we will be doing so gracelessly, arrogantly and after the most infantile of national debates.
The EU has many faults. As Brussels correspondent of the Times at the turn of the century I witnessed first hand how bureaucratic, wasteful and overbearing it can often be. Its institutional architecture is awkward and unwieldy. At times its ambitions run far ahead of public opinion. Its attempts to forge consensus among 27 diverse nations are often exasperatingly complex and time-consuming. But it has also been spectacularly successful.
In fewer than 70 years – a blink of an eye in historical terms – it has united the Anglo-Saxons, Gauls, Teutons, Romans, Slavs, Hispanics, Celts, Norse, Balts and other tribes of Europe around shared democratic values after centuries of conflict that culminated in two world wars.
It has ended the continent’s division by the profound ideological chasm of the Cold War – Hungary and Poland’s recent backsliding notwithstanding. It has created a single market of 500 million people, the biggest free trade area in human history, generating unprecedented prosperity after the devastation of the Second World War. It has given young Europeans a priceless freedom to live, work, study and travel anywhere within its borders that older generations never even dreamed of.
It has done all of that without seriously eroding its peoples’ sense of nationhood. Are the French less French because of their EU membership, the Germans less German or the Italians less Italian? Do Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage really feel less “British”, or “English”, than their parents? I doubt it.
As a former Brussels correspondent I also know that readers of Britain’s rabidly Eurosceptic newspapers were told little of the above, least of all by the Telegraph’s Johnson, and that the dire 2016 referendum did little to enlighten them.
The Brexiteers blamed the EU for problems that were none of its making. They relentlessly deployed their sneers, lies and simplistic slogans to portray it as a malign and oppressive force, preposterously likening it to Nazi Germany on occasion. Instead of striving to reform it from within they willed its collapse. They have portrayed our real friends and allies as enemies while giving the unspeakable Donald Trump a free pass.
They have, moreover, shamelessly inflamed a sense of national superiority and “world-beating” arrogance that was best left latent. “We’re a much better country than every single one of them,” Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, bragged this month after Britain became the first Western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine. He blithely disregarded the fact that the vaccine was developed in Germany and made in Belgium.
It remains to be seen whether we will “prosper mightily” outside the EU, whether we will really “ping off the guy ropes” and become a “supercharged champion” after removing our Clark Kent spectacles.
Again, I very much doubt it, but I’m sure of this. Johnson’s “Global Britain” will be nothing of the sort. It will no longer be the force for good in the world that it was as a member of the EU. It will no longer be able to use its position as one of the bloc’s biggest, most influential member states to persuade the other 27 to fight poverty, resist authoritarianism, promote Middle East peace or take collective action against climate change, international terrorism, global pandemics, Chinese expansionism, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Having abrogated our leadership role, having voluntarily relegated ourselves to the margins of the international stage, we are a much diminished nation with no clear role in the world. The little men (and women) have won.
My eyes welled up as I listened to Ursula von der Leyen’s statement after the trade deal was clinched last week – a generous, graceful statement delivered in flawless English, French and German that contrasted starkly with Johnson’s narrow nationalistic triumphalism.
“This whole debate has always been about sovereignty,” The European Commission president noted. “But we should cut through the soundbites and ask ourselves what sovereignty actually means in the 21st century. For me, it’s about being able seamlessly to work, travel, study and do business in 27 countries. It’s about pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers. And in a time of crisis it’s about pulling each other up instead of trying to get back to your feet alone. The EU shows how this works in practice, and no deal in the world can change reality or gravity. In today’s economy and today’s world we are one of the giants.”