IIn the war of words over fishing rights in the Channel, great emphasis has been placed on a single line in a leaked letter from Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.
The nuances of the insulting sentence vary in translation, but the key is that the European public should not be in any doubt that there is more pain associated with leaving the EU than staying in it.
To the Eurosceptic ear, it was a confirmation of a malicious motive on the continent. France, it was alleged, wants to “punish” Britain for choosing freedom. On the other hand, Castex merely reiterated the obvious logic behind Brexit: it is a denial of European solidarity and a bet on the benefits that a sole proprietorship can achieve in rivaling a syndicate. The union members have an interest in that game not paying off.
British Eurosceptics are strangely stinging around the banal strategic fact. It is simply a consequence of their own florid rhetoric over the years, condemning Brussels as a parasite undermining national vitality and praising Brexit as proof of the EU’s obsolescence – the first step in a major unraveling. The European project will, of course, be strengthened if Boris Johnson is humiliated, and vice versa.
In the fisheries dispute, France deserves a fair share of the blame for cynical escalation. President Macron is sabotaging with an eye on his home audience ahead of next year’s election. But his stance is colored by a sizzling contempt for a British prime minister whom he sees as a stranger to courtesy. That feeling was greatly exacerbated by the recent poaching of a lucrative defense contract to build Australian submarines as part of Aukus’ security deal with Washington. But it is Johnson’s treatment of Northern Ireland’s protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement – the signing of a treaty with no intention of implementing its terms – that convinced the French president that Downing Street had become completely rogue.
The crisis in Northern Ireland is far more dangerous than a kerfuffle over cod. But they are symptoms of the same syndrome: a Brexit model that makes a sacred principle of sovereignty. All traces of the EU’s institutional lever must be removed from land and excavated from the sea. This fixation guarantees tensions at any limit, where old, free-flowing habits are subject to the friction of new controls, forms and licenses.
The material gains from maximizing sovereignty in this way are zero, while costs increase. But to admit that the model is flawed is unthinkable in Johnson’s Tory party. Or rather unspeakable. There are MEPs who understand what has gone wrong, but who only expect exclusion if they should speak out. This leads to two political choices. First, exaggerate or invent fictitious benefits of scrapping EU rules. Rishi Sunak threw himself into this with his budget speech last week, relentlessly presenting cuts in the alcohol tax as a Brexit dividend. (Alcohol classifications would actually deviate from European directives, but the accompanying price drops would still have been allowed.)
Second, turn international annoyance to domestic policy advantage: cite cross-channel disputes as evidence of Brussels’ evil, and then recognize the economic pain associated with Brexit as a vengeful backlash from the continent. Already this tactic is being practiced in Northern Ireland. What the EU calls the implementation of a signed agreement condemns Eurosceptic hardliners as a blockade.
It is a feasible political strategy, albeit an unpleasant one. But it lacks one crucial element: the heroic destination. Throughout history, revolutionary movements have given excuses for their failures by blaming foreign sabotage. But they have also maintained momentum with visions of a utopian future. It was also the Brexit method, as long as EU membership could be turned into a scapegoat for a wide range of social and economic ills. Now ills are left, but the proposed remedy has already been taken.
In that sense (and only one), Brexit is a victim of its own success. Britain can no longer get out of the EU. Frost scrapes the barrel of sovereignty. The Tory awkward squad that pursued David Cameron to a referendum and then let Theresa May out of office to seek compromises with economic reality got everything they could have wanted from Johnson. They know their battle has been won and saddle various hobby horses, ride out to new fronts in the culture war, grumble about the cost of reducing CO2 emissions in the tone they once used for “Brussels’ bureaucracy”.
Johnson has tried to maintain the rhetoric about Brexit as a sunlit highland. His party conference speech last month promised an economy with high wages and high qualifications that would emerge in the absence of migrant labor. But it was an essay-crisis utopia, intertwined with bits and pieces of news about labor shortages and broken supply chains. Moreover, by far the most memorable thing Johnson has ever promised about Brexit is that he would get it done. This legacy is diluted every time the question gets in the news, which will keep happening.
The pursuit of purer sovereignty will create tensions with neighboring countries, which will then be cited as proof that only the purest sovereignty will suffice. This is not the typical revolution where the goals can justify the means. The ends have already been reached. EU membership has expired. Instead, we are stuck in the purgatory of endless means: a sisyphean nightmare of rolling negotiations that reaches a certain point of agreement before collapsing and starting again. Johnson’s Brexit condemns Britain to forever reintroduce the tedious, embittered process of leaving without hope of satisfaction, because we have already left.