northNow that a deal has been reached, the end of Britain’s life as a member of the European Union can be decently regretted. As the funeral prayers progress, the one that William Shakespeare put into Mark Antony’s mouth in Julius Caesar it is, well, transcendental: “The evil that men do lives after them, / The good is often buried with their bones.” Before we dump the last handful of dirt on the corpse of the British European Union membership, we could briefly dig up the good things about the relationship.
A bad ending is projected backwards. A messy divorce erases years of reasonably happy marriage. Brexit has projected a bitter story of resentment and resentment into the future. Almost 50 years of history are compressed into a deterministic history of irreconcilable incompatibility. The evil is still alive; the good rots in the ground.
No one doubts that Britain’s European years were often marked by reluctance and sometimes resistance. For all sorts of reasons, Britain was never able to sit comfortably in the place that was offered to her in the holy trinity of the EU, alongside France and Germany.
But that shouldn’t hide the big reason for the sadness at the way it all ended: Britain did a lot of good for Europe and Europe did a lot of good for Britain. This half century has not been in vain. Not everything has been a waste of time.
Two great things in the history of the EU would not have been completed as they did without the British: the single market and enlargement. The problem with both, in fact, is that Britain pushed them forward without fully understanding their political implications.
The single market is the great achievement of the EU; protecting it was, ironically, the overwhelming goal of future trade negotiations with the UK. It just wouldn’t have happened, when it happened, if Margaret Thatcher hadn’t pushed so hard. It is easy to forget, because almost all parties have been adapted to do so, that the model for the single market was a brochure called Europe: the future that Thatcher introduced to her fellow leaders at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984.
The problem was, Thatcher could never accept that the functioning of a single market had to be counteracted by common social, environmental and security standards, with the political, legal and administrative capacity to enforce them. The fact is that the force that has shaped the EU for the past 30 years was set in motion by Great Britain.
Similarly, without Britain, it is not entirely obvious that the EU would have responded so bravely to the fall of the Berlin Wall by incorporating the Warsaw Pact states. Once again, it was Thatcher who proclaimed the objective of enlargement in his witches speech in 1988. It was under the British presidency that membership talks were opened with the first wave of central European states. It was Tony Blair who then lobbied for Romania and Bulgaria to be allowed to join. Here, too, the implications of a British policy were not really understood in Britain. It was not explained that free movement would mean more immigration from these countries. Or that the governance of a much larger EU would inevitably have to be more closely coordinated. Yet on these two defining issues, Britain was adventurous, ambitious, energetic and effective.
On the other side of the equation, the EU helped Britain resolve the dilemmas outlined in the 1971 white paper that advocated membership in the Common Market. If he turned down this opportunity, “in a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future … Our power to influence the [European] Communities would steadily decline, while the power of communities to affect our future would also steadily increase. “
Being in the EU really allowed Britain to transcend its imperial past and envision a European future for itself. It ensured that the inevitable influence of a larger political and economic bloc in its east was tempered by the ability to have an equal and respected voice within that bloc. It gave Britain a way of being in the world that was not dependent on past greatness.
And the EU helped the UK solve by far its biggest internal problem: the conflict in Northern Ireland. The direct involvement of the EU in the peace process may have been marginal. Its indirect impact was immeasurably great.
When Britain and Ireland joined in 1973, relations between them were very bad, under constant strain from the pressure of unrest. Thanks to their close collaboration in the EU, the two countries learned to behave as friends and equals, without resentment on the one hand or condescension on the other. It was the assumption of continued common membership of the EU that made possible, in 1998, the construction of a peace agreement that could build political reconciliation on the basis of economic and social integration.
The boredom, frustration and rancor of the past four years have erased our memory of the historic and hopeful things that Britain’s membership of the EU allowed to happen. Anti-EU rhetoric in Britain has encouraged a notion in Europe that the EU will be better off without these sullen and boisterous discontents.
But, as another great English poet, John Donne, said, also in a funereal tone, “If a clod is washed away, Europe is less.” Britain may have been sloppy at times in its decades of membership, but Europe is less so because it has been razed. And Britain is less for allowing itself to be. Engagement marks remain on both bodies and are not hurt. They are the memories of mutual achievements, of the good that men and women did for each other. At no time in its history has Britain shaped the continent so deeply without war. At no time in its history has it been able to behave with its neighbors so much as an equal, so little as a victim of delusions of grandeur.
In another moment of finality, the Beatles chose as their last words: “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make.” Britain took over from the EU and made it in equal measure. There should be no good way out, just a heavy heart, deeply sorry for so long, it’s been good to meet you.
• Fintan O’Toole is a columnist for the Irish Times
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.