Yesterday's non-result at the European Union summit seemed already written in the stars when Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Brussels on Thursday. She said that, if there was no agreement, the leaders could reconvene in the new year in a fresh effort to hammer out a deal. These turned out to be wise words. They meant that failure to agree could be treated as a staging post, rather than collapse. The sense of grand crisis, which reigned after David Cameron wielded Britain's veto last December, was thus avoided.
That summit, of course, was about saving the euro, and not about the EU budget. And this makes a difference. Here, the 27 are on familiar territory, and there is no question of anyone – net donor or beneficiary – opting out. Each country's interests and positions are largely known, as is the degree of latitude. If Ms Merkel is right again, the EU is on track for a compromise in January. What she actually said was "there is sufficient potential for an agreement". When even David Cameron says a deal is "do-able", it sounds less like whistling in the dark.
At least, they can all reflect, they broke up in time to snatch a weekend at home, rather than dispersing angry and frustrated in the small hours of tomorrow morning. That itself might reflect a certain coming of age. And something similar might be said, for once, of the UK's participation. For all his insistence that what happened last December was Britain standing up for itself and the result of a conscious plan, Mr Cameron's approach this time around suggests a number of lessons learnt.
First, he arrived early to meet the chairman, Herman Van Rompuy. Second, he avoided wholly negative rhetoric and stuck to a reasonable-sounding message to the effect that, when cutting at home, he could hardly sign up to extra spending in Europe. Third, he went out of his way afterwards to stress that Britain was not alone. Last December, he had presented isolation as positive. Clearly there has been a re-think. On a scale of good to appalling outcomes in Brussels, of which Britain has run the gamut over the years, this summit must rate not too bad, either for Europe or, unusually, for the UK.