It’s been a tough couple of months for lovers of the EU. The bloc is on a losing streak. It was slow to order vaccines, slow to approve them and quick to blame a producer, AstraZeneca, when supplies were delayed.
Brussels jeopardised goodwill in Northern Ireland by briefly planning to invoke the Brexit deal emergency protocol. It agreed an investment treaty with China, despite the horrors of Xinjiang. It hasn’t punished Russia for poisoning and imprisoning Alexei Navalny.
Where does this leave the millions of pro-EU Britons? Those who, in 2019, waved EU flags at the Last Night of the Proms and carried placards such as “Fromage Not Farage” on marches? Must they accept that Britain, with its faster vaccine rollout, will do fine on its own?
Pro-EU fervour is a recent phenomenon in the UK. For decades, few mainstream politicians wanted to be MEPs, few children studied European languages and no one followed German politics.
Divorce made British hearts grow fonder. Outlets like The New European newspaper and Led by Donkeys campaign group emerged after the 2016 Brexit vote. Being pro-EU became a sign of liberal identity. It was also easy. You could put the impossible promises of Brexit next to the known benefits of EU membership. You could compare Britain’s foolhardy Brexit secretaries — David Davis, Dominic Raab and Steve Barclay — with the competence of Michel Barnier. Negotiating legal texts is Brussels’ specialist subject.
You didn’t have to reckon with the rest of the Brussels machine. It helped that the EU was relatively stable — thanks to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, some growth and few crises, even in Italy.
By contrast, the period before the referendum had been marked by the Greek debt crisis and the Mediterranean migrant disaster. Brexit would not have happened without that backdrop, which allowed Leavers to portray EU membership as being “shackled to a corpse” and hindered the Remain campaign from making a positive case.
So, which is the real EU? The chaotic pre-2016 version that Britain’s liberals ignored, or the idealised 2016-20 version that they lionised?
A few Remainers cling to the idealised version — arguing that in the EU, Britain would have shaped Brussels’ vaccine response, or diverged from its regulatory approval process. In truth, it would be miraculous if being outside the bloc didn’t help the UK do a few things better.
Personally, I’ve never had illusions about Brussels. Some Britons fell in love with the EU thanks to the Erasmus university exchange scheme. My own student tale is different. I applied for an internship in Brussels. On the form, you had to provide proof that you spoke one other EU language, which I did. I then also mentioned I spoke some French. My application was rejected because I hadn’t provided evidence I spoke French. I felt I had seen the tip of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
So I think Remainers can handle reality. The competition between the UK and the EU will spur both sides in a few areas: Brexit was one reason the EU accelerated trade talks with Japan in 2016. The case against divorce is as strong as ever. There is no frictionless trade, as countless businesses are finding out. There is no technological solution to the Irish border. There is no answer to the growing calls for Scottish independence. Boris Johnson wants to maintain the Union, but can’t even keep his own Union unit together.
The prime minister’s supporters imagine a scenario where Brexit settles down, the halo of the UK’s rapid vaccine rollout lingers on and the divergence between the UK and the EU becomes unbridgeable. Maybe.
But it’s also possible that Brexit becomes more uncomfortable, especially as people want to travel for work and holidays. Moreover, when the pandemic subsides, the EU may well have a lower death toll than the UK. And, if the two sides squabble, this may be seen not as a justification for Brexit — but as a sign that divorce has not led to the stable friendship Johnson promised.
Remainers shouldn’t play down Britain’s vaccine success. They should simply point to those areas where we are the laggards: Germany is ahead on overall pandemic response and on export-led growth; Denmark puts us in the shade on green energy and transport.
The EU’s flaws do not make the case for Johnson’s Brexit. Brussels suffers from foreign policy inertia, but European countries are Britain’s most reliable allies. The common agricultural policy is a disgrace, but the EU is the most consistent champion of climate action.
It’s unlikely the UK will rejoin the EU within 20 years. But it is plausible that it will rejoin the single market, or align closely with it. In campaigning for that, Britain’s pro-EU voices should temper their idealism. It wouldn’t hurt, either, if Brussels put its house in order.