Exactly as some observers had foreseen, and as this newspaper had commented early this month, there was considerable advantage for both the United Kingdom and the European Commission in taking the Brexit deal to the absolute brink.
As consequences of a no-deal Brexit sunk in on either side of the English Channel in the past few days, the deal when it arrived on Christmas eve draped itself in the robes of a triumph, claimed not surprisingly by both sides.
The European Commission President, Ms Ursula von der Leyen characterised it as fair and balanced. More important, she said it was the “right and responsible thing for both sides to do.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised both hands in triumph and with an evident note of self-congratulation proclaimed, “We have taken back control of our destiny”.
If reports are to be believed, the final sticking point was fishing rights for European fishermen off the British coast, an engagement whose terms clearly spelt a deal breaker for a country so fond of its fish (and chips).
While the irony of a nation that once ruled large swathes of the world being reduced to a squabble on how many fish who can catch will not be lost on diehard imperialists, for now, both the EU and the United Kingdom can celebrate a festive season with some reason for cheer.
Mr Johnson’s remit clearly was to respect, or at least appear to respect the spirit of a referendum that in 2016 voted to pull his country out of its European engagement. While many of those who had voted to stay, including the majority in Scotland, believed that a second referendum would reverse the outcome, Britain’s political class was determined not to rock that boat.
At the same time, and especially in the city of London, there was realisation that snapping ties without setting terms of engagement would hurt immeasurably. Thus, Mr Johnson had the task of ensuring the best of both worlds, a prescription that his European counterparts could not in good conscience contemplate. For in Brussels’s estimation, if the United Kingdom was able to leave and yet plug into Europe’s economic power, it could pave the way for other countries to follow suit.
Votaries of a united Europe are aware that the union is not one of equals, and the skill of its leaders has always lain in balancing its inherent contradictions. These had bubbled to the surface on the question of migration not so long ago and may yet do so in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. To have Britain leave the EU with a deal loaded in its favour might have strained Europe. Not surprisingly, therefore, the details of the deal reached between London and Brussels have been left somewhat fuzzy for now, for it still needs ratification by the two Parliaments. But today there is relief, and for that Europe must feel grateful.