Now that a deal has been done, the end of Britain’s life as a member of the European Union can be decently mourned. As funeral orations go, the one William Shakespeare put into the mouth of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar is, well, world-beating: “The evil that men do lives after them,/ The good is oft interred with their bones.” Before we throw the last handful of earth on the corpse of Britain’s membership of the European Union, we might briefly disinter the good things about the relationship.
A bad ending gets projected backwards. A messy divorce obliterates the years of reasonably happy marriage. Brexit has projected into the future a sour story of resentment and rancour. Almost 50 years of history are squeezed into a deterministic story of irreconcilable incompatibility. The evil lives on; the good rots in the earth.
No one doubts that Britain’s European years were often marked by reluctance and sometimes by resistance. For all sorts of reasons, Britain could never sit comfortably in the place it was offered in the EU’s holy trinity, alongside France and Germany.
But that should not obscure the great reason for sadness about the way it has all ended: Britain did much good for Europe and Europe did much good for Britain. This half-century has not been mired in futility. It has not all been a waste of time.
Two huge things in the history of the EU would not have been completed in the way they were without the Brits: the single market and enlargement. The problem with both, indeed, is that Britain pushed them forward without quite understanding their political implications.
The single market is the EU’s great achievement – protecting it was, ironically, the overwhelming aim in the negotiations on future trade with the UK. It simply would not have happened, when it happened, if Margaret Thatcher had not pressed so hard. It is easy to forget – because it has suited almost every side to do so – that the blueprint for the single market was a booklet called Europe – The Future that Thatcher presented to her fellow leaders at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984.
The problem was that Thatcher could never accept that the workings of a single market would have to be counterbalanced by common social, environmental and safety standards, with the political, legal and administrative capacity to enforce them. The fact remains: the force that has shaped the EU for the past 30 years was set in motion by Britain.
Equally, without Britain, it is not at all obvious that the EU would have responded so boldly to the fall of the Berlin Wall by bringing the Warsaw Pact states into its fold. Again, it was Thatcher who proclaimed the goal of enlargement in her Bruges speech in 1988. It was under a British presidency that talks on membership were opened with the first wave of central European states. It was Tony Blair who later pushed 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 bigger EU would inevitably have to be more closely co-ordinated. Nonetheless, on these two defining issues, Britain was adventurous, ambitious, energetic and effective.
On the other side of the equation, the EU helped Britain to resolve the dilemmas laid out in the 1971 white paper that argued for membership of the Common Market. If it rejected 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 diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”
Being in the EU really did allow Britain to transcend its imperial past and imagine a European future for itself. It did ensure that the inevitable influence of a bigger political and economic bloc to 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 did not depend on past greatness.
And the EU helped the UK to settle by far its biggest internal problem: the conflict in Northern Ireland. The EU’s direct involvement in the peace process may have been marginal. Its indirect impact was immeasurably large.
When Britain and Ireland joined together in 1973, relations between them were very poor, under constant strain from the pressure of the Troubles. It was through working closely together in the EU that the two countries learned to behave as friends and equals, without resentment on the one side or condescension on the other. It was the assumption of continuing common EU membership that made it possible, in 1998, to construct a peace agreement that could build political reconciliation on a foundation of economic and social integration.
The tedium, frustration and rancour of the past four years have wiped our memories of the historic and hopeful things that British 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 surly and obstreperous malcontents.
But, as another great English poet, John Donne, put it, also in funereal mode, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”. Britain may have been cloddish at times in its decades of membership, but Europe is the less for its being washed away. And Britain is the less for allowing itself to be so. The marks of engagement remain on both bodies and they are not wounds. 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 profoundly without war. At no time in its history has it been able to behave towards its neighbours so much as an equal, so little as a victim of delusions of grandeur.
At 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 from the EU and made it in equal measure. There should be no good riddance, just a heavy-hearted, deeply regretful so long, it’s been good to know you.
• Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times