What can the EU do to help the Britons out of their Brexit quagmire? Until very recently, the answer would have been ‘little, if anything’. There is a deal on the table, which Theresa May herself pronounced to be non-negotiable. Well, parliament directed her — and by implication, the EU — to think again and to reconsider the vexed question of the Irish backstop. Does anybody on either side of the channel really want to wreck the future relationship between the UK and the EU over the unsolved issue of the Irish border, as well as risk creating renewed enmity along it? God forbid.
The EU’s reluctance to come forward with a compromise is of course rooted in the inability of Europeans to understand the existential drive behind the British wish to leave in the first place. They simply can’t conceive of their British partner, so beloved across a hugely Anglophile continent, wanting to ditch its cosy alliance for the purpose of going it alone again in the world.
Everybody was somehow goaded into thinking that the term EU makes for a joint identity, erasing intrinsic differences of national characteristics. Wrong. There remains a significant gulf between the sceptered isle and the continental approach to history. A seafaring nation and continentals sing from quite different hymn sheets.
On the eve of Trafalgar Lord Nelson told his captains, ‘Something has to be left to chance. Nothing is certain in a sea fight.’ The English, wrote Orwell, are ‘inveterate gamblers.’ It boils down to the same thing. On the high seas you have to trust to fortune as well as to your skills and your confidence in this blessed plot. The British character emerged from a combination of guts and risk-taking, with sovereignty and a ‘free hand’ as the ultimate aspiration.
As a result, the country has never subscribed to a supranational body with rights to adjudicate in its own affairs.