Brexit will put an end to the Delors phase in European history

Brexit will put an end to the Delors phase in European history

Everyone remembers Eliot’s famous ending to The Hollow Men:

“This is the way the world ends/ Not with… etc.”

We should also recall the beginning:

“We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men/ Leaning together/ Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”

The poem was written some ninety years before the Brexit negotiations. But you’d think he was an observer scribbling in the margins.

Whatever the fruit or the fate of those negotiations, it will not be the end of the world. Nor will it be, to use the notorious, triumphant phrase on the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of history. It might, though, be the end of a phase in European history. If we use this moment strategically, we could make it the end of Brussels’ EU. If we do not, it will certainly be the end of a historic opportunity, the sort that only lands in a nation’s lap about every fifty years.

“Historic” is an over-used word, especially by lacklustre politicians who wish to divert attention from their lack of lustre. At this point it has meaning. All history goes by phases; or in Europe’s case (to use the favoured currency of Brussels) “chapters”. This one has been rather long: first Monnet, then Delors, now Barnier. All French; all socialist, centralising and protectionist both by instinct and governance. You can see it from their point of view. The institution (EEC, EC, EU), graven in their image, must be preserved. And they have won the negotiation. Britain, craven in its image, has ceded. So far.

You can also see it from the point of view of the UK civil servants. Distraught at the prospect of no more (Treaty of) Roman governance, they are like the bath attendants at Aquae Sulis seeing the disappearance of their friends and masters in 400AD. All is lost. Who now can mend the hypocaust?

Until this point, Britain has consigned itself to being on the back foot in the negotiations because of the hypnosis of compromise. No team, however brilliant, can hope to win if it throws all its resources into defence and forgets its strike capacity. There is one more “game” to be played out: the charade of a deal, that no-one favours, being put to the House of Commons. If it is approved, we remain tied to the EU; if it fails, we have policy vacuum.

Our “Brussels correspondent” continues:

Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

There is an alternative staring us in the face. The “new and shocking Valuation” comes from the unlikeliest quarter. For centuries, Ireland has been “a problem”. Now, at last, it provides the solution. We should forget backstop and think, instead, front foot.

The sequence is as follows. The integrity of the EU requires preservation of the Single Market. That requires those outside to be subject to a tariff regime. Without a common external border, such a regime cannot be enforced. No one has the wish, let alone the capability, to re-impose a physical border across Ireland. No border then, no enforceable tariffs. No protected Single Market, no protectionism. Free trade. When M. Barnier, or some other official, is presented with this they will ask: “What exactly are you proposing?” The answer is that we are no longer proposing, as in negotiation. We are presenting, as in reality.

The only missing ingredient in the above sequence is the look on the Commission’s face when they realise that Brexit does, after all, mean Brexit.

It does not stop there. Even more important than what this does for the UK is what it does for Europe. Unable any longer to charge the more competitive and therefore more prosperous Member States for the privilege of “free” trade, unable to impose rules, without either budget or raison d’être, the Commission’s back is broken. The Delors phase in European history is over.

This does not mean that we become any less European. We and others will continue to make use of and benefit from the networks and patterns of collaboration that have been embedded and developed across the continent since the end of the 1940s: the commercial, academic, security, scientific, standards, values and human links that will still bind us together. The difference is that the terms will no longer be set by officials at once unelected and unauditable.

It is not a case of Britain removing itself from Europe; rather, removing Brussels from us – and those we will galvanise to join us in setting about, and leading, a new chapter of European history.