One of my favourite train journeys is one you can only take in the summer. First thing in the morning, you jump on a Eurostar at St Pancras International on what, British weather being what it is, is often an overcast and drizzly day. Just under six and a half hours later, you emerge, blinking into the sunlight at Marseille Saint-Charles, whose terrace offers what must be the best view from any McDonald’s in the world. At this point in the pandemic I’m capable of feeling nostalgia for the idea of an overcrowded Virgin Pendolino from Euston to Birmingham New Street – one of those with the design fault that put the sewage tanks too near to the heaters, meaning that the entire train ends up smelling of, well, yes – but nonetheless, the idea of a single train that takes you from London to the Med still feels almost impossibly glamorous.
The return journey doesn’t invoke quite the same feeling. Partly for security checks, but also partly because the UK chose not to join the passport-free Schengen Area, everyone is turfed off for over an hour in the equally overcast and drizzly northern French city of Lille. There you jump through a series of annoying administrative hoops, all the while fretting, irrationally, that the train will leave without you. If you ever wanted to convince a sceptical relative of the practical benefits that closer European cooperation could have brought to their life, take them on those two trains.
Brexit means, among other things, giving up experiences like the southbound train in favour of ones more like the northbound one. Some of the ways in which it will make our lives worse will be invisible to most voters: it’s hard to get people angry about Brexit-induced price increases, say, or the long-term economic effects of the reduction in cross-Channel trade, because they haven’t lived through the timeline in which those things never happened. They have nothing to compare them to.
Other effects, though, will be a lot more obvious. In early February the BBC ran a story with the wince-inducing headline, “Brexit: 71 pages of paperwork for one lorry of fish”: it’s impossible for anybody working in the fishing sector to be unaware of quite how much more hassle it is to be outside the European Union than it was to be inside it.
Similarly, professional musicians and actors and the crews that support them now find themselves requiring visas and work permits to work on the Continent, and thus losing work or paying large bills to cover the cost. In the event we are ever allowed to travel again, many more people will be surprised to find that they now need extra paperwork to take their dog to France, or that using their mobile phone will cost a bomb.
Such things won’t necessarily move people’s views on ideological matters, such as whether the European project is a good idea or whether Brexit was a mistake. But they may shift views on more practical points, such as whether the government should be working to reduce the red tape involved in working in or travelling to Europe. Already the creative industries are pushing for a new visa regime to make those work trips easier. The EU claims it offered one and that the government rejected it.
One of the reasons why in the years after 2016 Britain pulled towards more and more extreme forms of Brexit was that there was always a partisan or factional advantage on offer to anyone willing to say the government wasn’t pro-Brexit enough. It was a way of building a reputation, and garnering flattering write-ups in the Daily Telegraph: it’s the only reason, let’s be honest, that any of us have even heard of Mark Francois.
But the result was that the Tory party was always under pressure to appease its hardliners. There was no countervailing pressure on the other side because, as loudly as Remainers may have yelled about the downsides of Brexit, they all lay in the future: nobody could actually feel them. Tory moderates did not end up pulling the party back towards sanity: they just ended up outside the party.
Now, with Brexit done, people will suffer from those disadvantages. And while the small, angry Brexit-y men of the world may continue to shout about sovereignty, “endless paperwork” and “huge mobile phone bills” make a much more convincing case for the UK’s membership of the EU single market than anything the #FBPE types of the world could come up with before 31 January. Perhaps that countervailing pressure will come at last from the voters.
The story of the last five years has been one of Britain moving further and further away from the EU. That concluded, with perfect timing, with plucky little Britain’s stunning vaccine rollout being greeted by wicked Brussels’ panicked attempt to close the Irish border.
But that affair did not – and cannot – prove that Brexit was the right thing to do, and all the downsides and inconveniences it will create are coming all the same. As they finally hit the voters, our leaders may finally feel under pressure to address them. The UK may never rejoin the EU – but the story of the next five could still be about it moving closer and closer to it again.