Now that an agreement has been reached, the end of Britain’s life as a member of the European Union can be mourned politely. As funerals go, what William Shakespeare put in Mark Antony’s mouth to Julius Caesar strikes the world: “The evil that people live after, / The good is often with their bones.” Before throwing the last handful of land at the corpse of Britain’s accession to the European Union, we could briefly disconnect the good things about the relationship.
A bad end is projected backwards. A messy divorce eliminates the years of a fairly happy marriage. Brexit has projected a sour history of resentment and anger in the future. Nearly 50 years of history are compressed into a deterministic history of irreconcilable incompatibility. Evil lives. good turns on the ground.
No one doubts that Britain’s European years were often marked by reluctance and sometimes by resistance. For all these reasons, Britain could never sit comfortably in the place offered to it in the Holy Trinity of the EU, along with France and Germany.
But that should not hide the great sadness of how it all ended: Britain did very good for Europe and Europe did very good for Britain. This half century has not been confused. It was not all a waste of time.
Two huge things in the history of the EU would not have been completed as they were without the British: the single market and enlargement. The problem with both is, in fact, that Britain pushed them without realizing enough of their political implications.
The single market is the EU ‘s great achievement – its protection has been, ironically, the overwhelming target in future trade negotiations with the United Kingdom. It just wouldn’t have happened, when it did, if Margarita Thatcher hadn’t pushed so hard. It is easy to forget – because it fits in almost every aspect – that the single market plan was a pamphlet entitled Europe – The Future that Thatcher presented to her fellow leaders at the 1984 Fontainebleau Summit.
The problem was that Thatcher could never accept that the functioning of a single market would have to be offset by common social, environmental and security standards, with the political, legal and administrative capacity to enforce them. The fact remains: the force that has shaped the EU for the last 30 years has been set in motion by Britain.
Similarly, without Britain, it is not at all obvious that the EU would have responded so boldly to the fall of the Berlin Wall by bringing the Warsaw Pact states into its nets. Again, Thatcher announced the goal of enlargement in her speech in Bruges in 1988. It was under the British Presidency that accession talks began with the first wave of Central European states. It was Tony Blair who later pushed for Romania and Bulgaria to be allowed to participate. Here, too, the consequences of a British policy were not really understood in Britain. It was not explained that free movement would mean more migration from these countries. Or that the governance of a much larger EU will inevitably need to be more closely coordinated. However, on these two crucial issues, Britain has been adventurous, ambitious, energetic and efficient.
On the other side of the equation, the EU helped Britain resolve the dilemmas set out in the 1971 White Paper in favor of joining the Common Market. If you rejected this opportunity, “in a generation we would have to renounce an imperial past and reject a European future … Our power to influence the [European] Communities would be steadily diminishing, while the power of the Communities to influence our future will increase steadily. “
Being in the EU has really allowed Britain to transcend its imperial past and imagine a European future for itself. It ensures that the inevitable influence of a larger political and economic bloc in its east is mitigated by its ability to have an equal and respectable voice within that bloc. It gave Britain a way to be in a world that does not depend on the greatness of the past.
And the EU has helped the UK solve by far the biggest internal problem: the conflict in Northern Ireland. The EU’s direct involvement in the peace process may have been marginal. Its indirect impact was extremely large.
When Britain and Ireland reunited in 1973, relations were very bad, under constant pressure from the riots. Through close cooperation in the EU, the two countries have learned to behave as friends and equals, without resentment on the one hand or consent on the other. The issue of the continuation of the common accession to the EU made it possible, in 1998, to build a peace agreement that could build political reconciliation on a basis of economic and social integration.
The anxiety, frustration and anger of the last four years have erased our memories of the historic and hopeful things that Britain’s EU accession has allowed to happen. Anti-EU rhetoric in Britain has encouraged the perception in Europe that the EU would be better off without these vague and ambiguous points.
But, like another great English poet, John Donne, he also put it to a funeral service, “If a pellet is washed from the sea, Europe is less.” Britain may have been superfluous at times in its decades of accession, but Europe is the least flushed. And Britain is less than allowed to be like that. Signs of entanglement remain on both bodies and are not sores. They are the memories of mutual achievements, of the good that men and women did for each other. By no means in its history has Britain shaped the continent so deeply without war. In no case in his history was he able to treat his neighbors as equal as a victim of illusions of grandeur.
In another moment of the final, the Beatles chose as their last words: “And in the end / The love you get / It is equal to the love you do”. Britain took it from the EU and got it to the same extent. There should be no good indifference, just a boring, deeply sad for a long time, it was good to know you.
• Fintan O’Toole is an Irish Times columnist