It is a truth almost universally acknowledged among those of us who voted Remain that the worst possible outcome of the Brussels talks would be an unmitigated Brexit. A bad deal (still probably the likeliest outcome) appears better than No Deal. That still appears the consensus among those few who really loved the EU and those who feared that leaving it would be more trouble (not least in Scotland) than it was worth. It is probably also the view of a substantial majority of MPs.
But is it necessarily so? I ask the question not because I share the illiusions of the most fervent Brexiteers but because there might be an even worse outcome than dropping out
of the EU with no deal. That might be dropping back into it
with no deal. It is a possibility which has obviously occurred to both our friends and our enemies among the 27 and in the commission, which appears to be feasible within the likeliest interpretation of EU rules, and which must be the realistic aim of the British politicians who openly or covertly hope for a second referendum on Europe.
The prospect has some attractions. It might settle the matter 'for a generation.' It would surely impose a proper acceptance of the result of the 2014 Scottish referendum, for the SNP would lose its pretext for a replay. It would, in theory at least, leave Britain free to seek reforms in both the structure of the EU and in interpretation of the principle of 'free movement of workers.' There is some evidence of a more flexible attitude in various parts of the EU than there was when David Cameron got almost nowhere in his pre-referendum negotiations.
But what is theoretically possible may not match what is politically feasible. It is naïve to expect that even if Britain were allowed to drop back into the EU on the same formal terms as before, rebate and all, we could resume just where we left off. Too much British hostility has been brought into the open, too many reservations made evident even among many of us who voted Remain. On the other side too many concealed grudges and resentments have been flushed out, while many of the European notions about reform are accompanied by emphasis on matters where the British have always been awkward or uninterested and (in the eyes of the most enthusiastic europhiles) obstructive.
There is a new confidence in the euro, at least for the time being, and fresh zeal to force it on those countries which still remain reluctant to commit to it. There are serious schemes for a European finance minister and harmonisation (or more) of budgets. New bids will be made to drill national forces into a common European defence policy and structure. There are vaguer hankerings after a European prime minister or executive president. There is a determination to force a refugee quota policy on the countries of the Schengen agreement and evidence that many European leaders and bureaucrats regard this as a more serious and urgent problem for the EU's future than the terms of Brexit.
Even more important, for some EU leaders and campaigners in the media, are the allegedly authoritarian tendencies of the right-wing governments elected by Hungarians and Poles. The EU has rightly resisted the attempts to lure it into Spanish quarrels involving Castilians and Catalans but it has got drawn into arguments about how judges should be appointed, universities recognised, and even abortion regulated in east-central Europe.
None of this should surprise us. The EU cannot be expected to stand still while we negotiate our terms of departure and after the balance of influence within it has been radically altered. The EU we might drop back into, after the 27 had adjusted to the shock of our intended departure, could not (whatever the rule-book might say) be quite the same as the one to which handed in our notice. Nor could any British prime minister in that situation hope for even the limited influence which Gordon Brown and David Cameron retained in the years before the Brexit referendum.
Against this background it is understandable that the Europeans themselves may be unsure whether they would greet a returning prodigal by playing the loving father or the surly elder brother in the biblical parable. The way the negotiations have been organised and conducted so far on the EU side suggests that there would not be much music and dancing and little inclination to interrupt the happy grazing of the fatted calf.
The elder brother does have a point. He has seen the prodigal upset the smooth arrangement of the family finances and opt-out of the troubles with the Greeks who had smooth-talked their way into the encampment. He saw him hanker after far countries and obstruct plans for the ever-closer integration of the family business. He knows the prodigal never liked the convenient free movement of hired labourers (and their train of relatives) who crowd out the family's tents and revel in its benefits.
Were we to abandon Brexit and overcome any last-minute doubts about the legal position (as Donald Tusk and even Jean-Claude Juncker seem to think we can) the EU would not be sure which role to play and would probably end up attempting both. It would probably embrace us with words of welcome, even do its best to soften the humiliation which would be all too evident. It would be sincere enough in taking us back, for even those in the EU who never loved us would rejoice in the demonstration that nobody, once in the EU, could ever successfully challenge its rules and procedures or afford to secede from it.
But I fear that the loving father would soon give way to the surly elder brother. The remains of Margaret Thatcher's rebate would disappear, probably not with a bang but after a few whimpers. The euro and the Schengen frontier policy would not be forced on us but would be generously offered once a few think-tanks blessed by Tony Blair suggested in suitably smooth words that Britain should take a fresh look and new approach in the light of changing circumstances.
In fact, the circumstances would be so changed that Britain would have to accept a complete reversal not just of Brexit but of its previous attitudes to Europe. The only way to avoid relegation to a second-class EU membership with little influence on policies and priorities would be to outflank the Germans and French in our zeal for ever-closer union as the United States of Europe.
It is a prospect which might please some Remainers, but not most, and it is one which would intensify the bitterness, recklessness, and nastiness evident in the long Farage campaign against the EU and which is now matched by the bitterness, hysteria, and eager prophecies of doom on the other side.
What Britain needs now, and is far from getting, is a calm Brexit and as near as possible to a consensus Brexit. It seems a distant prospect. No deal means pain, loss, confusion, and recrimination. The only worse deal on offer is a humiliating reversal of Brexit which would leave most of the British people anxious and uncomfortable and many of them embittered and even more estranged from our political system and its practitioners than they seem today. The best of the bad options may be to pay up for a 'bad deal.'