For three centuries all British governments have shared one strategic foreign policy goal: to ensure Britain was never isolated in Europe. That meant wars in the 18th and 19th century against the dominant power, France, two wars against Germany in the 20th century, and the UK’s part in the Cold War until the end of the Soviet threat in 1989.
But in 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has achieved something quite astonishing. He has managed to unite the continent of Europe from Ireland to the Baltic, from Sweden to Spain and Italy, in a European Union which sees Britain as behaving badly.
After failing to achieve a deal to leave the EU – a deal Mr Johnson claimed was “oven ready” – and with disagreements including fishing rights, the Johnson government has sent gunboats to protect “our fish.”
The Times newspaper headline read "Navy to board French boats." A former Conservative MP, now Times newspaper political commentator, Matthew Parris describes Mr Johnson as an English (not a British) nationalist.
He has not only reversed the central element of British foreign policy of 300 years, but he has also undermined the unity of the UK, by reviving competing nationalisms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
My own book on this resurgent English nationalism How Britain Ends, will be published in February, and concludes that the UK as currently constructed will either boldly have to reinvent itself or risk pulling apart.
More immediately there is still no clarity on whether the UK will leave the EU with a deal or no deal. After four and a half years and countless extensions, talks are yet again extended with a supposedly “final” deadline on December 31. Whatever the outcome, the damage has been done.
The Johnson government has made Britain look incompetent, arrogant and badly led – a terrible combination.
Mr Johnson has alienated Britain's friends in Europe and irritated the incoming Biden administration in Washington.
British newspapers have attacked Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in ways which are both unfair and that damage Britain itself. Chancellor Merkel has always been a great ally.
She once told me that as a girl in the former East Germany she listened to BBC radio under her bedclothes, learning English and admiring British culture.
So what happens now? A deal – any likely deal – will make the UK poorer than staying in the EU. But no deal will be even more damaging and will sour relationships for years.
Mr Johnson claims no-deal Britain will trade very well with the European union on World Trade Organisation terms, though he often calls them “Australian terms”. This is utterly misleading.
WTO terms mean new tariffs – taxes – on goods, rising prices, onerous form filling, bureaucratic snarl-ups and long queues at ports.
Lorry drivers will struggle with new rules. Britain will need thousands more customs agents. Besides, Australia has no Free Trade Agreement with the EU, but is seeking one.
The former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said that “Australia’s relationship with the EU is not one from a trade point of view that Britain would want.” The Bank of England forecasts “no deal” will be even more damaging to the British economy in the long term than the coronavirus pandemic, which has already cost multiple billions.
But a deal with the EU also has a catch. What would be the point of Brexit if the UK stays aligned with EU standards and rules as a necessary prerequisite of obtaining a deal? This problem has been obvious for years.
Last year former prime minister Tony Blair summed it up snappily by saying no deal would mean “a painful Brexit,” while any deal would – for the Brexit ideologues – be a “pointless Brexit.” For years Mr Johnson has slipped over these obvious problems with glib phrases and impossible promises.
For a flavour of his Brexit delusions, here is a reminder of his Daily Telegraph column just three days after the Brexit referendum, 26 June 2016:
“At home and abroad the negative consequences are being wildly overdone… British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down… there will continue to be free trade and access to the single market.
Britain is and always will be a great European power, offering top-table opinions and giving leadership on everything from foreign policy to defence to counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing – all the things we need to do together to make our world safer.”
With no deal, none of these words will ring true. Reality bites. While a deal is still possible, any deal means some Brexit hardliners will accuse Mr Johnson of “betrayal.”
With no deal, Mr Johnson’s gunboats can presumably protect “British fish” – a peculiar species unknown to science – but only by angering and alienating our closest European friends and valued Nato allies.
Britain has endured four years of Brexit fairytales but is now on the brink of the worst British foreign policy debacle in living memory.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National