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Brexit is a retreat – not a liberation

It is a mark of Britain’s estrangement from the European Union – and, at least for now, the country’s diminished standing on the international stage – that although Theresa May attended a memorial service to Helmut Kohl at the weekend, she was not invited to speak. Of course there are hierarchies of closeness on such occasions, but there is something piercing about the manner in which what this country, and its leaders, have to say now has so little resonance. 

Kohl’s death should have occasioned more commentary in this country than it has. By any reasonable estimation, he was a titan of modern European history. The picture of Kohl holding hands with Francois Mitterrand at Verdun in 1984 is one of the most important and heavily symbolic moments of the past 40 years. 

Speaking in Strasbourg at the weekend, Jean-Claude Juncker – so often so maligned in this country – recalled seeing Kohl cry:

‘It was on the day we decided to press ahead with EU enlargement to the east and south east. In a voice choked with tears he said it was one of the most beautiful days of his life. That he, as German chancellor, was able to bring Europe back together after all the harm that Germany had caused. He wept. Nobody was embarrassed by his tears. That was Europe at its best.’

At its best, certainly, but also yet another reminder that the British, or most of them at any rate, have never really understood the European project. Or rather, the European’s Europe was not the British Europe. 

Britain cannot avoid Europe but it has never imagined itself a full part of the continent; our history is European but not altogether of Europe. It is easy to mock or scoff when someone such as Liam Fox says Britain is ‘one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history’, not least because this country’s record is far from as blemish-free as the fonder accounts of our history would lead you to believe. The United Kingdom committed a significant number of appalling acts in further-flung parts of the world and there is little point pretending otherwise, nor in denying that ‘Better than the Belgians or the French’ is an inadequate yardstick by which to measure imperial excess. 

Nevertheless, the Second World War – the great creation story of modern Britain – washes away some sins. Just as Churchill, magnificently wrong so often, was magnificently right when it mattered most, so too did the United Kingdom redeem itself in 1940. If Britain never quite stood alone – there were the colonies, plus the airmen of Poland and Czechoslovakia too – it stood sufficiently alone for it to matter. And from that, so much else stems, including, in the long run, Brexit. 

It was not a myth; there really was something heroic about it. But Britain’s war story unavoidably meant we never understood the emotional appeal of the European project. Our finest hour was their darkest and, at least in terms of the painstakingly slow construction of the new Europe – a project that’s been sixty years in the making and is not finished yet – we never, really, truly, appreciated what it was was all about. What we saw as traps and the erosion of the nation state, they understood as safeguards. What we took to be German expansionism – albeit by peaceful means – they saw as constraints on German power. Germany would be embedded – buried, actually – in Europe. 

And even if we did understand it, we couldn’t ever decide whether we wanted to be a full part of it. This was not necessarily ignoble caution; there were, and are, concrete reasons to be sceptical about the EU’s past, present, and future direction. 

There were many reasons why Britain chose to leave the EU last year but among them is this: no-one, or almost no-one, ever bothered to make a case for the EU’s enduring value. Even pro-Europeans couched their arguments in miserably transactional terms: the EU isn’t great but it’s a little better than the alternatives. And having spent thirty years squabbling, during which time every treaty negotiation was treated as Britain vs the Rest, we created a political culture in which the default setting or assumption was that, while still better than the alternatives, the EU could never be anything other than intrinsically hostile to British interests. 

We never saw the nobility of the project because we never talked about it and, perhaps, because if we had, the British people would have laughed at such talk. Because that kind of talk – the ideas which drove Helmut Kohl’s political life – was alien to the British people’s idea of their own history and their conception of what a European future could, or would have to, be. 

In that sense, our political leaders were not necessarily wrong to adopt an arms’ length approach to the EEC and then the EU. They were always closer to the people than they are sometimes credited for being. But that does not mean the project lacks nobility, even if that nobility touches us less deeply than it does others. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and their choices and preferences can begin to make sense. Put yourself in a ruined Europe and the alternatives to the European project begin to look less appealing.  

Kohl’s death should remind us of that and even as we leave the EU it seems to me that we have much to thank Helmut Kohl for. He was right about German reunification (and Margaret Thatcher was blessedly wrong). And for all that the British press has every six months predicted that the eurozone will only last another six months, on it goes, limping perhaps, but still running. That was Kohl’s legacy too. 

You need not agree with Kohl’s visions to appreciate their substance. And by any reasonable measure, at least when considered from a big picture perspective, expanding the EU eastwards was a significant achievement. Just as countries such as Ireland benefitted hugely from EU membership, so have the countries of the once-captive east. Polish GDP per capita was 40 per cent of Germany’s in 2000. By 2015, it had risen to be 55 per cent. That journey is not complete either, but the trends are inescapable. 

Europe, for all that people in the United Kingdom are conditioned to laugh at its romantic and rhetorical excesses, is a real thing. The costs born by many of the eurozone’s members since 2008 should be a warning to our government too. As we prepare for the Brexit negotiations, we should appreciate that the EU27 have every incentive – political, economic, and moral – to stick together and resist giving the UK what we want. Keeping the show on the road is the EU’s raison d’etre and British politicians, or at least some of them, often seem unaware how strong that imperative is. 

That doesn’t mean some compromises cannot be struck. But we are fooling ourselves if we think Britain is likely to win more than a 50 per cent share of 50-50 challenges. The politics of Europe can’t allow that and nor, just as importantly, can the psychology of Europe. 

For true-believer Brexiteers this only shows that we were wrong to get involved in the first place and that’s a sustainable line even if it also requires us to believe that 40 years of prosperity owed everything to the Iron Lady and nothing at all, in any way whatsoever, to our admittedly ambivalent participation in the European project. 

But Kohl’s death, and the manner in which his life has been celebrated from Berlin to Paris and beyond, is a reminder that, whatever our frustrations with it, we are leaving something that isn’t just real but something that is valuable and, in its way, miraculous. That still feels less like a liberation than a retreat. But so be it. Having chosen to retreat, the question is how to do so in good order and without losing more than is necessary. 

Helmut Kohl’s life was dedicated to building something. For all modern Europe’s imperfections and for all the grave challenges Kohl’s project still faces, there are worse monuments than that.


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