Clearly this is partly a function of what happens over the next few days of brinkmanship familiar to anyone who has followed, participated in or reported on European matters in the 47 years since we joined. Phrases like “down to the wire”, “on a cliff edge”, “the clock is ticking”, “summit showdown” and the rest are integral parts of the European Union’s diplomatic lexicon, certainly where its dealings with the UK are concerned.
From Macmillan’s thwarted efforts to join the Common Market, through the fraught talks leading to our entry in 1973, the renegotiations under Harold Wilson, the fight for “our money” by Thatcher, John Major’s “game, set and match” at Maastricht, David Cameron’s spurned pitch for concessions ahead of the referendum, Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit”, all the way to where we are now, the language of finality has always been deployed.
And almost every time there has been an agreement. Maybe not one that has pleased everyone, or even anyone; but the imperative in these talks has always been to reach an accommodation. The one time this did not happen was when Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s application to join Europe. Just as one French president decreed the circumstances in which we could join, the current incumbent of the Elysée Palace is now seeking to dictate how we leave.
I particularly remember a summit in Brussels where Mrs Thatcher insisted that, without specific and substantial reforms of the Common Agriculture Policy, the UK would veto a new budget for Europe, leaving the institution bankrupt. Uncrossable red lines had been drawn, we were told, and there would be no backing down. But a compromise was brokered and both sides sold it as a victory of sorts. The only people who looked silly were the journalists, who had predicted disaster based on the briefings we received.
Of course, over the past 47 years such talks always took place with the UK inside the EU. The dynamic has undoubtedly shifted since our departure but the political calculations remain the same: how far can we push our case without causing a complete breakdown while allowing both sides to salvage something to their advantage?
One of the political dark arts is how to sell a half-baked deal as though it is an unmitigated triumph. If anyone can do that it is Boris. The European side needs to identify the line that he cannot cross while recognising the scope that exists for a mutually beneficial agreement. It is always possible that French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to push the UK out with no deal, hoping that France can exploit the uncertainties that such an outcome will entail, certainly in the short term.
If that is the case then Johnson will at least be able to blame the French, which has never been a bad look for a British prime minister. But walking away with no deal will be much harder to sell than an agreement, even one which the keepers of the Brexit flame denounce as a betrayal. No deal would look like failure and would be blamed for every future economic hiccup, whatever the cause. Moreover, it would be exploited by the SNP in their efforts to break up the Union.
After the difficult time the government has had with COVID, Johnson could do without being denounced for failing to deliver the Brexit trade deal he once said would be a doddle, even if his reasons for doing so are perfectly sound. It might go down well among some on his own side and can always be presented as Britain standing up for her sovereign rights against undemocratic Brussels bureaucrats. But the counter-narrative would be set by his enemies and they would portray it as a defeat, beating Johnson over the head with it for the rest of his premiership.
This dilemma has confronted most of his predecessors. As Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional historian, has observed, six Conservative prime ministers since 1960 have been brought down in part or in whole by Europe. Harold Macmillan’s government never recovered from the French veto in 1963. Edward Heath lost the two 1974 elections narrowly, with the Common Market issue playing a role in his demise after Enoch Powell broke with the Tories and urged voters to support Labour to get a referendum.
The events leading to Thatcher’s downfall were triggered by her response to Europe’s federal ambitions that resulted in the Maastricht treaty. This in turn stalked her successor John Major until his defeat in 1997. David Cameron was felled by a referendum he called to put the issue to bed once and for all. May’s fate demonstrated what a forlorn hope that was.
The UK is just three weeks away from breaking the final bonds with the EU — four and a half years after voting to do so — and yet the institution is determined to keep us in its gravitational pull like some giant black hole that sucks the life from all around it. Europe is the Conservative prime minister’s curse. How he handles the next few days will decide whether Johnson can finally break the spell or is doomed to walk in its shadow forever, his subsequent fate recalled in a yellowing newspaper cutting 30 years from now.