On the morning of 24 June last year, I was riveted to the television, nursing the latest of many mugs of black coffee. A longtime German friend who was staying – we might both describe ourselves as of the Europe generation – emerged from her room to ask: “What happened?” Well, I began, Leave won. The Prime Minister’s resigned. Leave leaders look shell-shocked. And no one knows who is in charge. “You’re joking,” she said.
Alas, it was no joke. Since then, Brexit, in all its degrees – hard, soft, “red, white and blue”, an ugly construct of a word scarcely heard before – has become so embedded in the vocabulary that it was included in the Queen’s Speech this week. It would be pleasing to think that her blue and gold outfit, her hat bearing a distinct resemblance to the European flag, was designed to convey a message, or at least balance the reports during the referendum campaign to the effect that the sovereign favoured Leave. We shall never know.
What we do know, however, is that this vote – which seems, one year on, as though it took place only yesterday, while also seeming to belong to another age – has already had consequences. And those consequences are as profound as they have been perverse. In its image of itself and in its relations with the outside world, the UK in many ways already feels like another country.
The divisions exposed by that vote have not gone away. When the PM and others claim in soothing tones that the nation is getting back together and “moving on”, they deceive themselves. The result was 52:48, and the 52 per cent remain fearful that their victory will be lost, while the 48 per cent still mourn what they’ve forfeited. If anything, passions seem as raw as they were on that morning after.
Earlier this week the heads of the Leave and Remain campaigns, Will Straw and Matthew Elliott respectively, shared a London platform in a debate organised by the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe. The event was packed, as indeed most post-referendum events have been. There was shouting and barracking; muttering and ridicule. Younger participants spoke bitterly of betrayal. This is where some of the seeds of the UK’s recent, extraordinary, election campaign were sown.
At best, the continued rehearsing of grievance might be considered therapeutic. My particular preoccupation is with process. Whoever decided that a referendum on the future of the country should be decided by a simple majority? Think about it: it could have been 50.5 to 49.5 per cent, say, and the side with just 50.5 per cent would have won.
How could our political leaders have been so negligent as not to stipulate either a minimum turnout or a threshold for the margin of victory to validate the result? Elsewhere in the world, such conditions are standard for parliamentary votes or referendums on matters of constitutional significance. Were the then Conservative government, fresh from its surprise election win the year before, so confident that that they knowingly risked the future of the country on a four-point margin that could have been even less?
There is no purpose to revisiting the miscalculations of the campaign – though there was plenty of that when Straw and Elliott relived its vicissitudes on Monday night. It is less the causes than the effects we have to deal with now. For the UK, these include sharp social and political divisions which show no sign of going away, and a general election designed to bolster the Prime Minister and her government’s negotiating position which achieved nothing of the kind. To make matters worse, the implications of devolution have come back to bite.
If we look across to the Continent, the state of the soon-to-be-27-strong union looks healthier, economically and politically, than it has almost ever been. Most of the doom-laden forecasts about the fallout from Brexit have turned out, in the short term at least, to be wrong.
One was that a vote by the UK to leave would set a precedent that would have others rushing for the door. Instead, successive opinion polls, the latest from the US-based Pew organisation, have found EU citizens more appreciative of the union and less inclined to leave it than before. When presented with Eurosceptic electoral candidates, voters in Austria, the Netherlands and France have all turned them down.
What is more, having accepted the inevitability of Brexit (even as we continue to agonise), they knuckled down, agreed preliminary negotiating positions, and then returned to projects – such as joint defence and strengthening the euro – which the UK had done its best to block.
The EU 27 still do not agree on everything. Migration continues to divide old Europe from new, drawing a faultline that could eventually produce a two-speed Europe. But the immediate effect of the UK’s Brexit vote seems actually to have strengthened the union, and revived the European idea that inspired it. In so doing it might be seen as confirming, more than half a century on, the wisdom of Charles de Gaulle’s hostility to UK accession.
As it happened, there was a reminder of the original European project – and of the gap that is now growing again between ourselves and the rest of Europe – when the death was announced last week of the former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. The one-time patron of Angela Merkel, Kohl has an assured place in history as the father of Germany’s peaceful reunification and one of those who helped shepherd Europe safely through the perilous Soviet collapse.
Yet as old Europe marked his passing – and prepared for a commemorative gathering next month – the UK, its politicians and its media were strangely silent.
Of course, we had other things on our mind, including the fire disaster at Grenfell Tower. But there is the short term and the longer term and history. And our inattention to the legacy of Helmut Kohl reflects an inattention to the history of the continent of which we are a part.
Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome established the Common Market, could it be that the idea which now finds its expression in the European Union is on the verge of flourishing again, albeit in a new age and in a new way? If it is, it will be without the UK, and the loss – it hardly needs to be said – will be ours.
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