As Big Ben fails to bong tonight, and Brexiteers toast a famous victory, will those who voted for Remain be ranting or sulking, or simply crying into their beer? If so, they should perhaps stop feeling so sorry for themselves. Of course, if you’re a Europhile, today is hardly a day of celebration – but neither is it a day for misery. Because if you believe in the EU, as I do, you should welcome Brexit Day.
Brexit isn’t just a fresh start for Britain – it’s also a fresh start for the EU. For nearly 30 years, ever since Maastricht, Britain has been a constant drag on the development of the European Union. De Gaulle was right: Britain was never temperamentally cut out to be a member of this club of nations. Its history and its national character meant it was never going to work.
For the last 30 years, I’ve been reporting fairly regularly from all over Europe, and if my travels have taught me anything it’s that Continental Europe is fundamentally different from the island where I was raised. Europe remains as diverse as ever (political and economic convergence haven’t diluted the unique character of its nation states) but centuries of shifting borders have given this landmass a communality which Britain will never share.
This intrinsic difference is a matter of geography, as much as anything. Germany has land borders with nine countries, eight of which are in the EU. The citizens of Maastricht (in the Netherlands) are a half hour drive from Genk (in Belgium) and Aachen (in Germany). The inhabitants of these three cities often cross several frontiers in a single day. It makes sense for them to share the same currency, and a lot of the same institutions. For them, ever-closer union isn’t an abstract ideal – it’s a practical inevitability.
But just because something works for someone, doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Just as the Euro has worked out pretty well for countries of the Benelux and pretty badly for countries like Greece, that Maastricht model plainly doesn’t apply to most Britons. The EU needs urgent reform and a member like Britain, with such a begrudging attitude to the whole project, is bound to be a hindrance in that process. If you really are a Europhile, and you want the EU to thrive, why would you want Britain to stay?
It’s clear that, for the last 30 years, lots of Britons have felt too closely bound to Europe. This may be an abstraction, but it’s no less important for all that. In recent years this tension has become increasingly acute, resulting in some nasty slurs against the EU (the Fourth Reich, the EUSSR – you know the sort of thing). Now Britain is leaving the EU, this ugly antagonism will dissipate. Eurocrats will no longer be compared to Nazis or Soviets, and Brexiteers will no longer be able to blame all their woes on ‘Brussels'.
Last year, in an impassioned speech at the German Embassy, here in London, the German Ambassador, Peter Wittig, described the EU as a peace project. This is the article of faith upon which the European Union was built, but it’s a belief and not a fact – rather like the British belief in the essential goodness of the monarchy. German Europhiles point out that they fought three wars against the French in the 75 years between 1870 and 1945, and none in the 75 years between 1945 and 2020. Brexiteers can argue that this had nothing to do with the EU, and everything to do with Nato. Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong. It’s a matter of theology. I felt like a Europhile so I found the facts to fit it. I imagine a good many Brexiteers feel much the same way.
Reporting from Europe these last few years, I thought my Europhilia might whither, but if anything it’s become stronger. In Latvia and Estonia, I’ve seen how EU membership has bolstered national identity, not threatened it. I’ve visited patriotic nations like Georgia, which are eager to join. Yet I’ve also realised that Britain will never see things the same way, and that leaving is best for everyone. These last few years have made me a Brexiteer.
Brexit has made the EU more popular in Europe. It will never be beloved, any more than any big institution is beloved, but that’s just as it should be – when people fall in love with flags and banners, war is near. But everyone can see that the EU Commission has handled the Brexit negotiations extremely well, presenting a united front and forging a deal that’s firm but fair.
Brexit has been likened to a divorce, and I think that analogy is about right. The EU didn’t want Britain to leave and is saddened by Britain’s departure, but everyone knows it’s madness to stay with someone who simply doesn’t fancy you anymore. The EU feels right for most of Europe. It doesn’t feel right for Britain. But that doesn’t mean both sides can’t prosper apart.
An amicable divorce is always difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for. It’s never a good look to wish the worst for your former spouse, and in the end it’s usually self-defeating. Nigel Farage says he hates the EU and hopes other members will leave. Meanwhile the Grand Place in Brussels is lit up red, white and blue, in affection, and fond farewell.