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Fintan O’Toole: British will soon pick at the scab that will form over Brexit

Dilemma of continental influence that led Britain to join EU returns as it leaves

In 2001, a newly elected Tory MP agonised about Britain's future in the European Union. On the one hand, he dreaded party meetings where fanatics and cranks were forever banging on about Europe: "When, oh when", he sighed, "will the Tories stop picking this scab? . . . The Tories should talk less about themselves (for which, read discussions on 'Europe') and more about what they can do for the country."

On the other hand, he wanted to be seen as a “moderate Eurosceptic” and a defender of “a thousand years of British parliamentary democracy” against Brussels bureaucrats. (Never mind that Britain was 300 years old and became a democracy in the 20th century.) He had, in fact, built his career by adopting amusing variations on this pose.

How did our friend reconcile these conflicting impulses? He decided that, in the end, Britain would have to stay in the EU: “What always just about clinches it for me is that we would lose influence in the designing of the continent. And it has been the object of 500 years of British diplomacy to ensure that continental Europe is not united against our interests.”

Britain used to be able to shape Europe through war – and did so time and again. But European peace removed that option

This political neophyte was, of course, Boris Johnson. Nearly 20 years on, he has succeeded in bringing about the very conditions he feared. His country has lost its influence over the destiny of Europe; his bluster managed to unite the continent against British interests.


Johnson is a clown, but good clowns are not stupid. He has declared his victory and his cheerleaders will ensure that he can bask in its glow for the next few days.

Yet he knows as well as anyone that, after Friday, he will lead a country whose sway over Europe is weaker than it has been for centuries. He also knows, surely, that he himself bears more responsibility for this than any other individual.


Sometimes, the end of things looks remarkably similar to their beginning. The beginning of Britain’s entry into what was then the EEC was a basic dilemma. If, as the 1971 White Paper put it, Britain stayed outside, “Our power to influence the Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”

Britain used to be able to shape Europe through war – and did so time and again. But European peace removed that option. This brutal logic kicked in once the EEC came into existence. Even when it had just six members, there was now a much bigger political and economic entity 30 miles from Dover.

This fact could not be wished away: the new bloc, as it developed, would exert more and more influence over Britain. The choice was stark. Britain could accept the loss of power involved in being subject to processes it could not affect. Or it could join the bloc and work to shape its development.

Nothing in 50 years has altered that binary alternative. But Brexit was based on two imagined ways of making it go away.

One was that, by leaving the EU, Britain could precipitate its demise. This was not as daft in 2016 as it looks now.

The EU’s appalling response to the banking crisis had destroyed much of its moral authority. The rise of the far right seemed unbounded: if the neo-fascists had won elections in Italy and France, the EU in its present form might have been doomed.

Clean break

The second, much more fanciful, idea was that the EU might somehow be seduced or fooled into giving Britain full freedom to trade in the single market even while also giving it the freedom to make a “clean break” from EU standards and regulations.

If this had happened, the direction of influence would have been reversed – the EU would eventually have been forced to accept Britain’s lower standards. The continent would have been fully Thatcherised.

Neither of these two gambits has paid off. The EU still has big problems, but, with its ditching of austerity economics and its chance to build a new partnership with a Biden-led United States, it is much stronger than it was in 2016. Instead of triggering its demise, Brexit did exactly what Johnson feared all those years ago – united Europe against Britain.

And the trade deal ensures that there is no “clean break”. Britain is definitively wedded to current EU standards. As for the future, it can claim no longer to be imprisoned by “dynamic alignment”. But it is out on parole – any serious deviation from what the EU decides to do will result in it having to serve a punitive sentence of tariffs.

Ireland, a small and relatively insignificant member state, has just had a huge influence on how continental Europe conducted itself in a historic crisis. Britain, a large and powerful member state, has negotiated itself into a position where it will not be able to act on the continent but the continent will continue to act on it.

There is no stable equilibrium in this unbalanced state of affairs. Boredom and emotional exhaustion will create a period of respite that may last for years. A scab will form over the wound. But, as Johnson so plaintively asked: when will Britain be able to stop picking at it? Never.