Johnson to go for hardline trade deal with EU

Going, going, gong: The British PM striking the bongs on Friday night to mark Brexit. © Getty

Is he denying reality? Today, Boris Johnson will make a fiery speech asserting the UK’s autonomy. But with British culture so merged with Europe’s, is he going against the grain of history?

“UK diplomats told to spurn old EU allies”. “Boris Johnson team ‘infuriated’ as EU reneges on free trade deal”. “Boris tells EU: No more concessions”.

Yesterday’s newspaper headlines leave no doubt about the British government’s direction of travel as trade talks begin.

“Go it alone” seems to be the phrase.

Downing Street negotiators are now willing to pursue a much “looser” trade deal with the EU, according the the Telegraph.

But many historians point out that trade and economics can never be separated from culture.

And Britain has an astonishingly rich heritage of European literature, art and philosophy going back centuries.

Consider a few examples.

In the late 1500s, at the top of a tower in southern France, Michel de Montaigne sat scribbling away, inventing a now familiar form – the essay.

At around the same time, in Spain, Miguel de Cervantes was hard at work on a book about an odd man so obsessed with knights he became sure he himself was one.

The book, Don Quixote, is one of the funniest and most moving ever written. It is also the first-ever novel.

Back in London, a playwright by the name of William Shakespeare was reading both writers. He poured their ideas into timeless plays that influence culture to this day. Shakespeare, at heart, was a European.

In the 1800s, the English poets Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning all criss-crossed France, Switzerland and Italy.

They were seeking out the wonders of European creativity for inspiration. They wanted to marvel at Renaissance masterpieces. Donatello’s dazzlingly delicate sculptures. Botticelli’s jaw-dropping paintings in the Uffizi.

Also hanging in the Uffizi were paintings by two Flemish artists from the 1600s, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. These flashy figures spent time in London at the court of King Charles I, painting portraits and doing diplomatic deals.

And while they were hobnobbing with English royalty, a Frenchman, René Descartes (who lived in Holland and died in Sweden) was laying the foundations of modern philosophy and the Enlightenment.

“I think, therefore I am,” he said. And he went on to influence almost every philosopher since – from Scottish David Hume to German Immanuel Kant, to Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein.

So is “going it alone” a denial of reality and therefore completely impossible?

Anchored or adrift?

No, think some. By separating from our European partners, Britain can easily forge a new path. Linked by the English language to America – and increasingly dominated by US culture – Britain could become something akin to America’s 51st state. Besides, European culture has never had a clear identity. It has always drawn from other cultures too: those of Africa, the Americas and Asia.

Yes, say others. A thousand years of shared culture can not be undone by a mere withdrawal agreement. Britain’s sense of the world, its values, and its very consciousness have been shaped by art and thought so deeply connected that Europe is at the heart of Britain’s identity. In a hundred years, historians will look back in amazement at this strange folly.

You Decide

  1. If you are reading this in Europe, do you feel “European”?
  2. Do you think British culture will change now that it is leaving Europe? If so, what do you think will change?


  1. In groups of four, discuss what you think about when you think of Europe – culture, architecture, sport, geography, history, holidays. It can be anything – positive or negative. Create a poster of your views. Present them to the rest of the class and talk about the similarities and differences.
  2. Which is most important for defining a European identity: arts and literature, sport, food, politics or traditions? Split into five groups, one for each topic. Make a two-minute presentation on why your chosen theme is the most important factor. Hold a vote to decide what the whole class thinks.

Some People Say...

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Montaigne really was the first author to describe his work as “essays”. Shakespeare quoted Montaigne’s first English translation (by John Florio) in The Tempest and King Lear. Romantic poets, such as Byron and Shelley, and Victorian ones like Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, travelled across Europe on a trip called The Grand Tour to learn about French and Italian art and culture. Artist Rubens was knighted by Charles I, and van Dyck painted Charles I’s portrait.
What do we not know?
We can’t say for sure that Cervantes invented the novel – that is debated by scholars. There are earlier books that are like novels – Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, written in 2nd Century Rome, for example, or The Tale of Genji written by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th Century. But Don Quixote is often said to be the first “modern” novel. We also don’t know for certain if Shakespeare read Cervantes, but one of his lost plays, Cardenio, was based on a story from Don Quixote.

Word Watch

Trade talks
The meetings over the next 11 months between the UK and EU to set out the terms of the new economic relationship that comes into force on 1 January 2021.
Michel de Montaigne
One of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularising the essay as a literary genre (1533-1592).
A ‘rebirth’ of European art and literature, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman culture, that took place from the 1400s to the 1600s.
One of the world’s most famous art galleries in Florence, Italy.
From the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.
To do with the relationships between countries.
Mixing socially, especially with people who may be seen to have a higher social status.
A European movement of the 1700s that prioritised reason and the individual over tradition.
David Hume
Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian and essayist (1711-1776).
Immanuel Kant
German Enlightenment philosopher (1724-1804).
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Austrian-British philosopher (1889-1951).


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