Ursula von der Leyen gets it right on Brexit, alas

In contrast with Boris Johnson’s hubristic announcement, Ursula von der Leyen has got it right on the sadness of Brexit — and the folly of the fantasy of “sovereignty”.

Ursula von der Leyen
In her statement on the conclusion of the talks she said, with measured dignity:


So, we have finally found an agreement. It was a long and winding road but we have finally got a good deal to show for it. It is fair. It is a balanced deal. It is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.

Of course this whole debate has always been about sovereignty. But we should cut through the sound bites and ask ourselves what sovereignty actually means in the 21st century. For me, it is about to seemlessly do work, travel and study in 27 countries. It is about pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers, and in a time of crisis, it is about pulling each other up, instead of trying to get back to your feet alone.

The United Kingdom is a third country, but it remains a trusted partner. We are long-standing allies. We share the same values and interests.

At the end of a successful negotiation’s journey, I normally feel joy but today I only feel quite satisfaction and, frankly-speaking, relief. I know this is a difficult day for some and to our friends in the United Kingdom I want to say “parting is such sweet sorrow”. But, to use a line from T.S.Elliot “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning”. So, to all Europeans I say “it is time to leave Brexit behind. Our future is made in Europe”.

The contrast with Boris Johnson’s statement is stark. He bumbles about a fantasised “independence” — impossible in the modern world — she talks realistically about what sovereignty is today. We’re in a world of big powers, where the UK’s idealised memories of empire say more about no longer being at the top table than the possibility of reclaiming our standing.

As usual, it is European pragmatism. The EU “punishing” Britain for leaving was only ever a fantasy in the mind of the more paranoid Brexiteers.

The EU has successfully done a “negotiate and move on”. The UK now faces the consequences. Even on Covid19, where the UK made a great fuss about its imagined superiority in getting a vaccine out first, the reality is that the vaccine now being deployed was developed in Germany and manufactured in Belgium. It was released early not because Brexit made that possible, but because the EU regulations, in force until the end of December 2020, allow a government to release a vaccine early in emergency conditions.

Now the UK faces a difficult time. It remains hard to see how we can come to a better arrangement than we had as EU members and hard to discern “new” opportunities that didn’t already exist.

Having lied to win a referendum, and lied again about an “oven ready deal” that has taken a year from being “oven ready” to completion, he now has to deliver what he promised. He also has to face the wrath of the people to whom he lied, and the others who will suffer culturally and economically because of his lying.

A humbled UK may well be seeking to rejoin the EU before long. Or perhaps it will be an independent Scotland followed by a humbled remnant of the UK.

I suspect that the announcement has come on Christmas Eve to minimise debate in the UK. I feel sorry for MPs who face the choice between a bad deal and an even-worse “no deal” when they vote on this. I feel sorry for those who thought that “no deal” would mean “carry on as usual”.

Ursula von der Leyen, in making her statement, has shown the UK want wise and mature leadership looks like. In the UK we will need political leaders of comparable wisdom and maturity who can say “it’s time to rejoin” rather than shysters who claim that the “sunlit uplands” are forever “around the next corner”.

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