But the three most popular responses in my random survey turned out to be “cake” (said with a giggle), “fish” (raised eyebrows), and “sovereignty” (ironic air-quotes). And that’s just the Brexiteers…
Cake, because Boris Johnson famously threw down the gateau gauntlet even before the 2016 vote by declaring that he was pro-cake and pro-eating it – a cheeky declaration that the UK was determined to leave the Union and still keep the tastiest benefits of being a member state.
Fish, because of the symbolism of the UK’s fishing stocks being bartered in the passionately-fought and always headline-grabbing haggling every December over EU catch quotas for the following year. Regardless of months of pre-planning by officials, those end-of-year ministerial marathons routinely lasted several fractious days and nights: one year, the negotiations went on for so long that Santa Claus turned up in a red suit and white beard and delivered light relief in the form of gifts for each national delegation. (That, I promise, is a true story.)
Sovereignty because sovereignty, derived from the Latin word superanus, is what the British people have apparently regained, after being ruled over for so long by an oppressive EU regime which, according to cakeman Boris, saw the UK forced into all sorts of unpalatable policies despite seemingly able to avoid some very big ones, including the Schengen agreement, Economic and Monetary Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
In fact, at the time of departure from the club the UK had more “opt-outs” from EU policies than any other member state.
This, argued Remainers, was a fine example of our clout as a Gold Star club member and a good reason to stay in.
On the contrary, said Leavers, such a degree of semi-detachment was clear evidence of the need to disengage completely.
But let’s get back to cake.
Johnson’s “pro-having and pro-eating” cake stand certainly attracted interest when he went public on this crucial issue months before the Brexit vote.
However, it was only after the referendum result made Brexit a reality that the cake challenge was taken up, unofficially, by the EU side, in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk.
He forensically deconstructed Johnson’s defiance of the fundamental logic of the nearly 500-year old saying that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Your cake, explained Tusk solemnly, is either on your plate or you eat it.
It was as much an attack on a confusing English idiom as on Boris, who, being a hapless Foreign Secretary at the time, was not used to being taken seriously. (Even today, as Prime Minister, his tongue, cake permitting, is firmly in his cheek as often as possible.)
In fact, I fully expected Boris to respond that Tusk’s analysis was faulty because he, Boris, always ensures that his plate is carrying at least two pieces of cake at all times, thus enabling him easily to both have his cake and eat it.
This would bring him closer to the austere Russian equivalent of the cake pro-cake concept, which is simply to say “You can’t sit on two chairs.” Even then, I guess Boris, after doubling up on cake supplies to ensure he had plenty to eat while preserving the same amount, would claim he probably could.
Anyway, one lasting legacy of our EU membership seems to be that some European Commission officials in Brussels have now adopted the word “cake” as a universal term to describe any attempt by any member state to make daft demands in negotiations in future. That alone is a legacy to be proud of.
Which brings me to my point, which is that there is not one reference in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to cake. Fish gets a mention, of course, and sovereignty is there in spirit, because it’s taken on an almost spiritual, mystical value in the Brexit saga, but cake is entirely absent.
It’s surprising that the EU side didn’t try to force it into one of the document’s nine annexes to protocols, simply to press home the Tusk message - or even insist on explicit wording obliging the UK to acknowledge in writing that the principle of having cake and eating it cannot be invoked in any formal governmental dealings with the Union. Perhaps Euro-MPs will modify the text when they get round to ratifying the accord…
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson remains free in principle to use his first visit to Washington under Joe Biden’s presidency to take time to nip ten kilometres south of the White House and stage a self-congratulatory photo-opportunity at a family-owned bakery which happens to be called “Pro Cakes”. It’s in the Iverson shopping mall in Temple Hills and has a great reputation for custom-made wedding cakes and cupcakes - just a thought for the Downing Street press and communications team, but I only recommend it if Brexit is going terribly well.
At the moment, things just seem to be going terribly, what with Northern Ireland still sort of in the EU, Gibraltar requiring Brits to show their passports on arrival in the British Overseas Territory, and UK fish and meat exports to the EU rotting on dock sides because of new and complicated post-Brexit paperwork which Boris said wouldn’t exist.
UK government officials say the floundering fish problems are just teething troubles which won’t last long. But EU Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has now pitched in to suggest publicly that a lot of these structural cross-Channel “regulatory frictions” will become the UK’s new normal.
I suspect that naughty Michel, having emerged from the Brexit negotiations with flying colours for his sangfroid and dignity in very difficult circumstances, is trying to have his gateau and mange it too…