Britain won’t rejoin the EU for decades — if ever


On two occasions in the past month, continental Europeans have asked me whether the UK will rejoin the EU. Not for many decades, if ever, I replied. This is so despite the shift in British opinion over the wisdom of Brexit. If the electorate had known in 2016 what it knows today it would have voted to remain. But it did not know. The result was a leap into the dark. But that leap happened. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus told us, “you cannot step into the same river twice”: neither you nor the river would be the same. This is also true of the EU and the UK. The decision to reapply would not reverse the decision to leave: both the UK and the EU have changed.

That British public opinion has shifted powerfully is evident. According to the National Centre for Social Research, the average of six recent polls shows 56 per cent of respondents in favour of rejoining (or joining), though the individual polls varied from 60 to 49 per cent in favour. Even more telling is a report by UK in a Changing Europe and Public First (of which my daughter is founding partner), published in September. This reported that 22 per cent of Leave voters thought that Brexit had turned out badly or very badly against only 18 per cent who thought it had turned out well or very well. “Bregret” then is rife. The fact that Leave voters feel so let down is not surprising. But it is also not good for the reputation of our democracy. (See charts.)

So, why, given this awakening to (an entirely predictable) reality, should the effort not be made to rejoin? There are three decisive reasons: first, it would create a host of new and damaging uncertainties; second, it would tear British politics apart just as they were calming down; third, the deal the UK would get would be quite different from the one it had, not least because, as Michel Barnier, the erstwhile EU negotiator, has told the Financial Times, “The EU today is no longer the EU that the UK left. We have begun to draw the lessons of Brexit.”

The uncertainty an application to join would create is quite clear. The battle to reapply alone would consume much of a parliament. There would need to be a new referendum — in my view, two, one to launch negotiations and another to assess its terms. Between these, there would be yet another negotiation, with unpredictable outcomes. The UK would look deranged in doing this so soon. For business, it would be a nightmare.

Moreover, reopening the question would be bitterly divisive. Yes, the result of a referendum might go the other way this time. But that is far from certain. What it would certainly do is redivide the country, with Leavers viewing it as a betrayal and Remainers as a chance for revenge. Labour, if it were indeed in government, would be mad to undertake so divisive a project. Worse, it would divert attention and energy away from tackling many other economic and social challenges. Sir Keir Starmer knows this.

Most important, the outcome would not be the UK’s to decide. The EU would want to be quite confident that the new member would be more co-operative and committed than the old one. Given the many challenges the EU confronts, it cannot afford to take on a big and potentially hostile member. Who can forget the offensive scene in which Nigel Farage and his Brexit party colleagues stood with their backs to the podium while the anthem played at the opening session of the EU parliament in 2019?

It would be reasonable, then, for the EU to insist that there would be neither opt outs nor rebates. Those are history. The UK would also surely have to join the eurozone. That would not only be a test of its commitment, but would also make it more difficult to leave, as the eurozone crisis showed. It would also be mere common sense, prior to opening negotiations, to demand that the UK’s vote in favour, in a referendum, would be at least 60 per cent. Even higher levels would make sense. In 1975, 67 per cent of voters were in favour. We know that even this did not prove lasting.

The EU itself has changed. This is most obviously true with “Next Generation EU”, the package agreed in response to Covid in 2020, which created common borrowing. Also important is the decision to co-ordinate the response to the war in Ukraine. Rejoining must surely include a commitment to the creation of a more integrated EU. That is still not what more than a small minority of Britons appears to want.

For the moment, Starmer’s approach is the only sensible one — to replace ideological posturing with pragmatic steps towards a closer and more co-operative relationship. Could anything plausibly replace that? Yes. If Trump pulled the US out of Nato, everything might change. But that could not be a solution a sane person would really desire.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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2023-12-10 12:00:30

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