Voltaire’s joke philosopher Professor Pangloss preached in the midst of disaster that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. It doesn’t sound quite so absurd if you put a strong stress on the word “possible”. It’s easy enough to create imaginary worlds, and to aspire to perfect solutions. But the possible? That, after all (as that supremely effective cynic Otto von Bismarck put it) is what the art of politics consists of. The defenders of the ‘deal’ finally agreed between Britain and the EU — defenders on both sides of the Channel and the North Sea — will doubtless tell us that it was the best possible in the circumstances.
Was it worth it? All the turmoil, anger, effort and worry since 2016? Remainers will unanimously say “No!”: how much better the world would be if we had remained docilely within the embrace of Brussels. Many Leavers will also say “No!”: how much better if our rulers had stored up their courage and walked out. We shall never be able to say which of these imaginary scenarios might have been true, which is what makes them so attractive to those who hold them.
Both would have had their costs. Had we voted, in 2016, to Remain, we would probably have been increasingly marginalised inside an EU set on greater centralisation of power, but which, as the history of the last 20 years has shown ever more clearly, lacks democratic legitimacy. The EU has become a political black hole, sucking authority away from its member states, but unable to use it to solve its increasing problems. Success for the EU has become little more than staving off disaster. The most obvious example of this, of course, is the insoluble problem of the eurozone: creator of poverty and unemployment, kept afloat on an ocean of debt, benefitting a few countries at the expense of the others.
A remarkable recent study by a German think-tank estimated that EU membership since 2000 had cost every Frenchman on average 56,000 euros, and every Italian 74,000, whereas every German had gained 25,000. Although we would have been outside the euro, we would have been partially responsible for its rickety structure. This has been further undermined by the devastation of the Covid crisis, aggravated by the EU’s divisive and ineffective financial rescue package, and, as if to add insult to injury, rounded off with tardy and incompetent planning for vaccination. So the purely negative advantages of being outside the EU are potentially huge. For one thing, the Commission has calculated that the UK would have been liable for 84 billion euros in its next budgetary cycle.
So why not just walk away? Tempting indeed. Boris must surely have wondered whether this was at last his 1940 moment: “I felt … that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” Some naïve press hyperbole has even called this the worst crisis since 1940. Fortunately, it is infinitely less grave. Nevertheless, Boris has had to deal with a divided country, a divided party, a ruthlessly hostile and opportunist opposition, uncontrolled and largely hostile media (how would Churchill have coped with today’s BBC?), and nationalists licking their lips. Was Macron’s cynical Channel blockade an attempt at intimidation? If so, the Government’s own clumsiness is largely to blame: it managed to turn a scientific advantage into a global disaster, giving our rivals and enemies a field day. So a deal at least wins short-term relief, and takes the wind out of the sails of Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon. It will not stop hard-line Remainers from blaming everything on Brexit. But it will smooth things down over the next few weeks and months. And a week is a long time in politics.
This is not the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning. Professor Pangloss might argue that through a chaotic process of political Darwinism we have arrived at the necessary (and, therefore, best possible) outcome . Think back across the aeons to 2016. Few people had any idea what Brexit ought to mean. ‘Hard’ Brexiteers thought of a Norway option, or rejoining EFTA or the European Economic Area. Mrs May and her advisors — wise (or so one would have thought) from years of negotiations in Brussels — imagined some “bespoke” deal, “ambitious” and wide ranging. Some Brexiteers predicted an easy negotiation: to reach a free trade agreement with people with whom we already had free trade.
How simple minded we were to think that the people who ran the EU would simply accept the UK’s decision, and pragmatically work out the most mutually beneficial future relationship. That is not how the EU operates, as we have seen most recently in Greece and Italy. Challenges to Mr Verhofstadt’s mighty empire have to be defeated, or the whole structure might begin to unravel. The EU were encouraged to think that they could repeat in Britain what they had succeeded with in Greece and Italy (not to mention Ireland and Denmark) by the tireless campaigning of Remain to try to undo the referendum — a strategy now condemned by Lord Mandelson for failing in its stated aim, but which succeeded brilliantly from the EU’s point of view in undermining the British government’s position throughout. The EU and the Remainers managed to set the terms of the debate: it was all about the UK’s “access” to the EU market, ignoring the need of key EU countries for “access” to the UK’s market (the most valuable in the world both for Germany and France), and of course to our fisheries.
The May government’s incoherent strategy, made worse by the unconstitutional antics of parliament, led to a disastrous Withdrawal Agreement and the trap of the Northern Ireland backstop. Boris Johnson inherited this poisoned chalice, from which Remainers gloated he would have to drink. It was impossible, so went the argument, to get the EU to change its mind. It held all the cards, and the UK was a pathetic supplicant with delusions of grandeur. As a former British representative to the EU proclaimed in the House of Lords, “We will huff and puff but, in the end, we will basically come to heel”.
Well, it seems we haven’t: if anything, the EU side seems to have blinked. It will take some time for the details of this agreement to be scrutinised. The traditional British approach — centuries old — of not looking too closely at texts in the assumption that common sense would prevail has, we must hope, now been abandoned. In dealing with the EU, you read the small print and count your spoons. We must assume that every loophole will be exploited by an organisation that fears our departure and begrudges our possible future success, because it reflects badly on itself.
But, at first sight, this agreement seems to assure the essentials. We will not be subject to EU law or the European Court. We will not be vulnerable to one-sided economic blackmail. Even our long-suffering fishing industry will have the chance to revive. We shall be freer to continue (as has been happening for 20 years) shifting our trade away from the EU to more profitable regions. In future we shall have no one to blame for our shortcomings but ourselves. The end of the beginning. What comes now will be harder still.