Whether Boris Johnson was trying to convince us or himself it was a “fantastic moment” as he signed the EU Withdrawal Agreement last week is impossible to know.

Certainly the prime minister’s thin-lipped smile and increasingly hooded eyes failed to communicate the enthusiasm of his words as he stared out from a desk flanked by two flaccid Union Jacks ahead of Brexit day on Friday.

His bungled mission to reinstate Big Ben’s bong also had the feel of a forlorn attempt to rekindle his own interest in a project he has probably not been fully committed to since writing spurious EU scare stories as a young man in Brussels.

When I joined the last pre-Brexit group of British journalists to visit the European Commission in Brussels last week, there was no attempt to mask the genuine sadness felt there at Britain’s impending exit.

As one “Eurocrat” put it simply: “Nobody wins from this, not us, not the UK, it is a loss for everyone that will become more apparent as the years go on.”

And yet despite that pessimism, the other overriding feeling you got from almost all of the sharp-suited multilingual employees cruising the glass and chrome corridors of the Commission’s towering offices is that the UK is going to be the bigger loser.

Britain’s impending exit take place on Brexit day this Friday

It was telling that the trade experts we spoke to listed Brexit negotiations as, at best, third on their list of priorities. China and America – economies that dwarf that of the UK – were clearly higher up the agenda.

That is not to say the year-long transition period that will follow the UK’s exit on Friday – during which we will retain almost all of the advantages of the single market and customs union – will not present a challenge.

With barely disguised irony, a senior negotiator told us: “With any other trade talks we have ever been involved with, the start point was a divergent country that wanted to realise the economic benefits of convergence.

“With Brexit, we are dealing with a country that is already aligned, but has decided it wants to diverge. That is unique.”

You don’t have to spend long in the Commission to appreciate the god-like status of the single market and the extent to which the thousands of extremely able staff view its smooth running as their holy grail.

Many Remainers will never be able to understand the argument for leaving a club with such a laser focus on delivering the economic benefits of its massive internal and external economic clout to members.

And yet there is more to life than trade, money and markets.

It was ultimately this notion – that the sovereignty and control ceded by the UK to Europe had come at too great a democratic cost – that drove much of the Brexit campaign.

I have visited Brussels twice at the invitation of the Commission, and it is telling that on both occasions the organisers failed to arrange a visit to the European Parliament – the EU’s democratic cornerstone.

As an institution, it is certainly not perfect, that is beyond doubt.

But wandering from the Commission’s imposing headquarters to Brussels’ stunning Grande-Place square – through a city bombed by the Germans for a week during World War II – it was difficult not to reflect on what drove EU integration in the first place.

It was the pursuit of a lasting peace across a continent that had spent centuries ravaged by war.

In the bustling pubs of Brussels, there is evidence of the unprecedented success of that project in the international clientele laughing and drinking together everywhere you look – as there is across all the big cities of Europe.

The EU’s determination to integrate quicker than economic benefits could trickle down to its poorer regions outside of these cities was, however, a failure.

But this is not a fantastic moment for anyone.

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