Wonder of wonders, the deal is done! After all the squabbling and shouting — and despite the predictions of No Deal disaster — Boris Johnson has his trade agreement with the European Union, and we can get on with our lives.
What a long, arduous, unedifying journey it has been, with so many twists and turns, so many chaotic postponements, so many wild forecasts and broken careers.
I think of David Cameron, white-faced with shock the day after the Brexit referendum; of poor Theresa May, kicked mercilessly from pillar to post; or of the People’s Vote campaigners, howling with rage on their way to oblivion. Where are they all now?
After all the squabbling and shouting — and despite the predictions of No Deal disaster — Boris Johnson has his trade agreement
Never again do we have to listen to people arguing about fishing quotas; never again will we see Michel Barnier striding grim-faced through the Eurostar arrivals hall. I can’t say I’ll miss it.
I’ll come to the details of the deal soon. First, though, a few wider reflections.
When I heard the first reports of white smoke over Brussels, my mind went back to that June morning more than four years ago, when we woke to learn that Britain had voted, by the narrowest of margins, to abandon the EU experiment.
As some people may remember, I was less than overjoyed by the decision. I’ve never hidden the fact that I voted Remain, and sometimes Mail readers ask why.
My answer was pretty simple, and it has never changed.
In some ways I ought to have been a Leaver, since I have no time for Brussels, loathed the idea of ever-closer union and have always shared George Orwell’s view that there is something different about Britain — the beer bitterer, the coins heavier, the grass greener, to borrow his famous words.
But I always thought exiting was a fearful risk. I thought the Leave campaign were disingenuous about the difficulty of extricating ourselves from such a complicated relationship, and absurdly complacent about the challenge of unpicking more than four decades’ worth of laws.
It was telling, I thought, that when they talked about Britain’s place in the world, none of them quite agreed on what it should be.
Some Leave spokesmen even said we should stay in the single market, which would have left us unable to make our own immigration laws.
Above all, I knew the EU would still be there the day after the vote. Like it or not, we would still need to deal with the bloc.
And because of its gravitational pull, and because it accounts for 43 per cent of our exports, we’d still need to follow its rules, if only informally. We just wouldn’t be in the meetings to decide them.
That is what Boris Johnson’s deal recognises. No doubt there will be many complaints in the days ahead, when people pore over the deal’s hundreds of pages and find that on issue after issue, we have agreed to follow the EU’s lead.
But that was inevitable. It could not have been otherwise. As has been said many times, there are 27 of them, and just one of us.
The EU could survive without UK suppliers but we can’t survive without EU customers.
Nobody should be surprised, then, that Mr Johnson’s deal is a compromise. By definition, that’s the nature of any deal, and Britain was never in as strong a position as the most ardent Leavers claimed.
Is it perfect? No. But in the past few years, people on all sides have had to accept that in politics, perfection is always out of reach.
Whatever his other faults, Boris Johnson has always struck me as a thoroughly pragmatic politician. For all the bullish bluster, his passionate devotion to his own popularity meant he was bound to reach an agreement eventually, as no sane prime minister would want to risk the damage of a No Deal exit.
But did he get a better deal through his brinkmanship than if he’d simply rolled over? Though his critics will never admit it, the answer is almost certainly yes.
Indeed, when future historians write about the past few years, one of their great challenges will be to understand why people kept underestimating the Prime Minister.
For time and again, he has proved the doubters crushingly wrong. I don’t deny that at first, I was among them.
During the dog days of Mrs May’s premiership, I poured scorn on the idea that Mr Johnson could get a better deal from Brussels. But I’m happy to admit that I was completely wrong.
Not content with getting a new withdrawal agreement, Mr Johnson called a General Election, won a resounding victory and has now secured a prize that seemed beyond his grasp — a lasting trade deal with our European partners.
Whatever else you may think of him, that’s not bad going. People on both sides, though, have had to learn hard lessons in the past four years.
Brexiteers have been forced to confront the hard realities of international diplomacy, and accept that in a globalised world, Britain’s economic clout is rather less than they fondly imagined.
They’ve had to learn, too, that the EU is much more resilient than they predicted. Brexit was supposed to trigger a domino effect, with the Dutch and Scandinavians poised to follow us out the door. But that now seems like a wild-eyed fantasy.
As for my fellow Remainers — well, where do you start?
Snobbish, sneering, risibly prey to conspiracy theories, many ardent Remainers made complete fools of themselves.
They didn’t try to understand their fellow Britons, and refused to accept defeat with good grace.
And if they had succeeded in subverting the referendum, as they hoped, they would have dealt our democracy a very heavy blow.
So whatever my personal prejudices, I’m glad Mr Johnson has honoured the promise of the referendum, and done so with minimal economic damage.
The Remainers, in a mirror image of the Brexiteers’ forecasts about the EU, were wildly over-pessimistic about Great Britain Ltd. There was no post-Brexit economic apocalypse.
And there’s no reason to doubt that, with this deal, Britain can flourish as an independent trading nation.
As for the deal itself, the obvious thing to say is that it’s almost exactly what anybody would have predicted.
British manufacturers will be able to sell their goods to European customers, just as before, and we’ll still be able to shell out for our Volvos and Volkswagens, to dine on chorizo, brie and prosecco, and to take our holidays on the Spanish coast — again, just as before.
If I had to pick out one telling detail, it would be the blasted fish.
Fishing accounts for just 0.1 per cent of Britain’s economy, and employs about 24,000 people.
In other words, the entire fishing industry could comfortably fit inside the stadium of a second-tier English football club.
Yet in the long months of haggling, it was fishing that came up again and again. ‘It’s all fish,’ lamented one EU diplomat during the last hours of wrangling.
Why? The answer, I think, tells you everything about Brexit. Fishing may seem economically inconsequential, but it matters enormously to coastal towns and villages in Cornwall or Eastern England — precisely those places which have felt left behind for decades, and which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.
And fishing also carries a huge symbolic charge.
Although the ultra-Remainers talk as if we’re merely a slightly larger Luxembourg, we actually live on the world’s third most populous island, and our geographical status has left an enormous mark on our national imagination.
A few days before the deal was done, I recorded a podcast with my fellow historian Tom Holland. We were discussing precedents for Brexit, and Tom suggested the submerging of Doggerland — the land bridge that once connected Britain to the Continent.
He was quite right, of course. No flooding of Doggerland, no Brexit. Britain’s sense of its own distinctiveness has played a colossal role in our relationship with Europe, and our maritime history means we are bound to think differently from people in, say, Belgium, Austria, Poland or Slovakia.
Our right to fish our own waters, and to protect our own coastal communities, is part and parcel of our national identity.
For most people it may only be symbolic; but symbolism matters. So it was perfectly understandable that Mr Johnson would make it a sticking point.
Did he get the perfect result? No. Originally he wanted the EU to return 80 per cent of its fishing catch to Britain — not the 25 per cent, transferred over a period of five years, finally agreed.
Again, though, that’s the nature of deal-making.
What, then, does this mean for Britain’s fishermen? Well, I hate to say it, but it probably doesn’t mean very much.
Fishing has been in decline for decades. We eat less fish than our predecessors, and what we do eat tends to be farmed or imported.
So Brexit or no Brexit, the great British fishing fleets that once patrolled the North Sea are never coming back.
Although this deal seems to represent a historical turning point, I wonder whether, in the long run, it will matter as much as we think.
Perhaps its real importance is simply the fact that it happened at all. Had we left the EU without a trade deal, we might have pulled through eventually.
But the short-term economic damage, coming on top of the terrible impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns, would have been devastating for British exporters.
Thank goodness, then, that Mr Johnson did the sensible thing. And what a relief it will be, to stop worrying about all those No Deal nightmare scenarios.
Another obvious benefit is that we can now get on with other things. Far too much time and energy in the past four years has been taken up with arguments about Brexit.
Instead of fretting about fishing quotas, we can turn to deeper issues, from our poor economic productivity and the plight of the High Street to the challenge of an ageing population and, above all, the urgency of defeating the Covid-19 virus.
And there is, I think, one more intangible benefit to all this. Now that the deal is done, and our relationship with Europe becomes more settled, we will have nobody else to blame for our own mistakes.
Britain will always have to take account of the super-state across the Channel — rather as Canadians can never quite forget their own hulking neighbour to the south — but we are the masters of our own destiny now. And even as a former Remainer, I think there’s something rather inspiring about that.
But here’s one last thought. Yes, Mr Johnson deserves hearty congratulations for getting Brexit done, once and for all. And yes, what a relief to have escaped the cliff-edge of No Deal.
But one day — as the long-term story of our fishing industry suggests — we may look back and wonder what all the fuss was really about.
The great issues of our time, from the rise of China to the explosion of digital technology, have nothing to do with Brexit at all.
And then, of course, there’s the pandemic, a terrifying lesson in the fragility of human life.
Still, those are subjects for another day. For now, after the worst year any of us can remember, even unreconstructed Remainers ought to raise a glass to Mr Johnson’s negotiators.
They might not have returned with a perfect deal, but they did an awful lot better than their critics expected.
So now, after four-and-a-half years, the whole agonising Brexit saga really is over. Remain, Leave, it’s all history now.
And as we enter 2021, here’s one New Year’s resolution we can all agree with.
Let’s put the arguments behind us. Let’s look ahead, to a bright independent future, and never, ever talk about Brexit again.