Britain’s membership in the European Union has died, age 44. The relationship is no more after years of the UK secretly pining for its sovereignty.
Beloved by some, tolerated by most and long detested by others, the ever-intricate marriage was wrenched apart by referendum last year.
The formal process will take two years and the costs could run into the tens of billions for Britain, but there is no going back.
Starved of compromise when it needed it most, Britain spent the last years with the EU in and out of relationship therapy, surviving on an insufficient drip of concessions from the bloc.
It wasn’t always this way. European suitors, known then as the Common Market, wooed a war-weary Britain, enjoying an on-again, off-again courtship that was almost derailed by a disapproving patriarch: French President Charles de Gaulle.
His death paved the way for romance to blossom. Britain’s defenses were finally broken down, and in 1973, a full marriage took place. Britain finally partnered with a like-minded equal – at least that was the understanding.
First came the honeymoon: Prosperity grew, the growth gap between Britain and founding members – Germany, France and Italy – began slowly to close. Incrementally, the UK became less the “sick man of Europe.”
Indeed, this side of the relationship blossomed until the financial crisis.
But over time, the nuptials didn’t deliver the expected parity. Fisherman, farmers and car manufacturers were among the many to complain.
From the get-go, the Common Fisheries Policy allocated dwindling sea stocks away from Britain’s fishermen into the arms of the continental beau. Over time, this became an open sore – a touchstone of the relationship going wrong. British fleets were badly hurt, ports put idle and Europeans hove closer to British shores than they’d ever been allowed to before.
What started as a tiny national bleed was never cauterized in time, becoming in some fishing communities an ugly hemorrhage – a place where the ills of the relationship could fester and find voice.
So too for farmers in 1984, who railed at the Common Agriculture Policy. European subsidies and pricing were perceived to be undermining livelihoods and changing the British landscape.
On the industrial landscape there was upheaval as factories closed. Car manufacturer British Leyland, once a giant that strode the land, became a casualty of continental competition.
It’s hard to say when the rot in the relationship really set in, but by degrees, dissatisfaction and disaffection grew.
For some, the relationship became uncomfortable when the European Community began evolving toward the EU.
In 1990, after years of political resistance, Britain signed up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was supposed to prevent big swings in value between currencies across the EU to make it easier for members to trade with each other and ultimately introduce a single currency. Two years later, Britain was forced to withdraw when it was unable to prevent the pound from crashing.
The union’s open borders and single market – demanding the free flow of goods, services, money and people – came in to force in 1993, unlocking a dormant disease.
It was not just a stealth agenda to stitch one another in to the same suit, but it also paved the way for economic migrants to leave behind their poorer, less well-serviced lives and cross Europe in search of their dreams.
Whether it was true or not, many in Britain felt their country was the one in the relationship doing all the giving.
What was once a waltz of joy between embracing lovers was becoming increasingly a stagger between estranging partners as wounds, sores, disease and imbalance were taking their toll.
Then, after unexpectedly winning the 2015 general election, David Cameron had to fulfill an agenda promise and set an ultimatum for Brussels, hoping that things were not beyond repair. Instead, he severed his own Achilles, limped off and left the now hopeless partnership battered, dead and buried.
Britain’s departure from the EU’s arms leaves the other lovers in this struggling union to keep the dance going.
The EU, clinging ever tighter, searching for a stronger embrace, is unwilling to let any others go.