After four years of wrangling, passionate debate and soul-searching, the UK has left the EU. But we have not left Europe. In a sombre speech announcing the EU-UK deal, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen quoted William Shakespeare, The Beatles and the poet TS Eliot. Not only is Britain “geologically” attached to the continent, as the UK prime minister also noted; Europe is in our culture and our souls.
US friends can feel puzzled when Brits say they are “going to Europe” on holiday. As a proud island nation, we love to emphasise our differences. But for many of us, it would have been harder to get through lockdown without Mozart, Bordeaux or cappuccinos.
A recent conversation with the editor of the Greek edition of my book, who is marvellously called Plato, reminded me of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. What have the Romans ever done for us? asks Reg, leader of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea, as he urges his group to turn against the oppressors. “Apart from” — he is forced to concede — “the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health”. As Europeans, we are bound together by a history that long predates a 47-year-old trade agreement. We can even — occasionally — share a sense of humour.
In the new year, it would be a profound mistake for government ministers to continue their tone of macho English exceptionalism. No one should be in the cabinet who can make the kind of claim, as Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, did recently, that the UK was first to roll out Covid vaccinations in Europe because “we’re a much better country”. On the contrary, with Brexit “done”, Brits must begin the process of rebuilding the amicability and respect that have been lost.
The Channel between France and England is a scant 20 miles across at its narrowest point. Yet not since Charles de Gaulle vetoed British membership of the Common Market in 1967 have we felt so far apart. All negotiations are brutal. But under former prime minister Theresa May, the British side squandered the goodwill initially felt in many European capitals after the shock result of the 2016 referendum. Boris Johnson’s team then deepened distrust by demanding negotiating sessions without having anything new to offer, and threatening to break international law.
It is not just the terms of the deal that many business people worry about; those can be worked with. It is the worldwide loss of respect for a country once envied for its brilliant diplomats and robust parliament but now — whatever you think of Brexit — has looked a shambles.
Many of our allies have been staggered by Britain’s self-absorption over the past four years. This helped Brussels to cast Brexit as a uniquely British issue rather than an existential moment, and to avoid thinking strategically enough about what the new relationship should look like between such important democracies.
UK-EU tensions are nothing new. In the popular 1980s TV series Yes Minister, the minister tells civil servant Sir Humphrey that “I’m pro-Europe, I’m just anti-Brussels”. There is a deep irony in the fact that the British Foreign Office, with its philosophy of “wider not deeper”, drove the enlargement of the union from a relatively coherent 12 member states in 1993 to an unwieldy 28 by 2013. But the current exasperation seems to be of a different order. There is a feeling in many European capitals that the UK has decided to make itself irrelevant.
Outside the bloc, the future will be a rolling series of negotiations. But they need not be fractious. Modern Britain is wholly European in its desire to combat climate change, Islamist extremism, Russian meddling and Chinese incursions into human rights. As the world moves into a new era of great power competition, the UK can only project its soft power and liberal democratic values in partnership with other like-minded countries.
For many people, one of the tangible benefits of EU membership were the schemes that promoted understanding and collaboration. Half of all British students who study abroad do so under the EU’s Erasmus programme, which has sadly been jettisoned under the new agreement. In its desire to pivot to the rest of the world, the UK government should not lose opportunities to deepen ties with countries which, after all, are nearby and cheap to reach.
Perhaps we should try to regain some of the spirit of 1967, when The Beatles released “All You Need Is Love” with the opening bars of the French national anthem. Boris Johnson has a chance to do so, and reset the tone, when Britain chairs the G7 next year and hosts the UN COP26 climate summit in November. The world will want to see a grown-up Britain that is intelligent and co-operative, not jingoistic.
With a treaty that is over 1,200 pages long, and many issues still to be finalised, it will take time to see how the deal will work in practice. But the machismo and bravura can now be left at the door, and the rapprochement can begin. Even our language, after all, owes so much to the interplay of forces and ideas that is Europe.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
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