We are only a few weeks in to Brexit.
Despite the schadenfreude engendered by the UK's successful Covid vaccination programme that some point to as evidence that leaving the EU was all worthwhile, there are clear signs that all is not well. UK exports to the EU are being disrupted, with some businesses deciding they can no longer afford to fulfil order from 27 countries. Others are jsut shutting up shop altogether.
And it’s beginning to look like the burden of increased bureaucracy is proving heavy, particularly for smaller enterprises.
Here in the UK, we are – understandably – fixated on the impact of Brexit. Committed adherents of the decision to leave and supporters of the deal are circling the wagons, even if some of their reputations are not exactly enhanced by their promiscuous fawning over the now-discredited President Trump.
What we don’t do is think about the EU post-Brexit. Our navel-gazing has all been around the question of what will happen to the UK after its liberation from the EU. And today there is a bleak augury - the emergence of Amsterdam as Europe's leading share dealing hub. No-one, to the best of my knowledge, has published a risk assessment for an exodus of capital and transactions from the City of London.
What’s actually more interesting is another question. What will the EU do now that it has been liberated from the UK?
Despite Margaret Thatcher being one of the moving spirits behind the Single Market (an irony lost on most Thatcherite advocates of Brexit), the UK has been perceived as a dead hand on the levers of increased integration, threatening to use its veto on anything that might upset the Little Englanders back home. With that impediment removed, what will the EU do with its new-found freedom? Here are two suggestions.
First, they will establish an EU-wide pandemic response agency. Never again will individual members have to face a plague alone. ICU bed capacity will be shared. Borders will be closed. The European Medicines Agency (now in Amsterdam, having migrated from London after the referendum) will co-ordinate research capacity. The new agency will assure availability of all necessary devices and PPE through a pan-EU distribution network. It will also sponsor the development of digital tools for use by individual member states. And Europe's leadership of mass vaccinations will become the gold standard.
Secondly, discussions will be advanced on the pooling of defence resources into a single European Defence Agency. This will cause much foaming at the mouth from rabid nationalists. But the strategic and economic arguments will be overwhelming.
You could almost sense the breathing-out in relief as Ursula Von der Leyen quoted T S Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end./And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
We in the UK thought that was about us. But it wasn’t. It was about them. It’s actually surprising that she didn’t go all Martin Luther King: “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”.
U.N.E - a future history started with a nagging question. "Why did Brexit feel so wrong?" It wasn't just the vacuity of the arguments deployed in its favour. Neither was it the instinctive lack of appeal of its chief advocates. In truth, those on the opposite side were equally vacuous, and just as unattractive.
Nope, what it felt like was that something was profoundly out of kilter, as if the rhythm and tempo of progress had been interrupted, not by a cataclysmic natural disaster, but by something entirely man-made, self-inflicted.
So I set about trying to explain this sense of foreboding, of loss. And I found it in a passage I wrote in my first novel, Grosse Fugue. This is cunningly - ok, thinly - disguised in U.N.E. as the book where my protagonist, Édouard de Rouffignac, get his inspiration for a radical new theory of government.
A number of people have asked who it's aimed at. Well, 75% of the UK population did not vote to leave the EU so, hopefully, it will bring a soupçon of solace to them that it may all work out in the end. This comes at a moment of maximum despair for British pro-Europeans (and for citizens of the EU who see the UK's departure as one with no upsides save, perhaps, the removal of one conservative brake on greater integration). The much-vaunted deal will, as the days and weeks unfold, will be revealed for what it is - the first free trade deal in history that aims to degrade the relationship between the parties. No deal was ever going to be better than the one which came with membership.
Of the other 25%, some are already dead, others still totally committed to the idea of Brexit. Then again, there are some who - having thought about the exit deal and the chaos that came in the wake of the referendum - would like another go.
And for all of them, U.N.E. - a future history offers a picture of how the next thirty years could pan out.