A challenge for those in favour of the United Kingdom joining the European Union

6th February 2020

Here is a challenge for those who support the United Kingdom joining the European Union.

The challenge is: can you forget that the United Kingdom was ever a member?

By this I mean: can you make out the case for the United Kingdom joining the European Union without reference to the fact that the United Kingdom was a member?

Can the case be made out in contemporary, modern terms, as if the United Kingdom had never been a member and (without the United Kingdom’s internal influence from 1973 to 2020) the European Union had evolved to its current state?

This would require putting side arguments about the rights and wrongs of the 2016 referendum, or about the merits or otherwise of various government policies and personnel since the referendum.

In essence: if the United Kingdom had never been a member of the European Union (and its predecessor forms) what would be the case for joining now?

The first reason for posing this challenge is simple: it is unlikely, if not impossible, that (re-)joining will be based on addressing past grievances of Remainers.

There has to be a positive case.

The second reason is to see if there are arguments for joining which cannot also be met by an Association Agreement.

Association Agreements can be in many forms, and in principle there is no reason why one cannot be the basis of a relationship so close as to be practically indistinguishable from membership.

So: what is the positive case for the United Kingdom joining today’s European Union – and is that a case that only full membership can meet?


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68 thoughts on “A challenge for those in favour of the United Kingdom joining the European Union”

  1. We would have to (forget). Any case to rejoin would be made around current position. We have lost veto, rebate etc and would be treated as application.

  2. The first argument actually is a historical one and it has to do with mid 20th century collapse of the European empires. This argument has been made by the UK Government in 1970s: European empires broke up, nation states are too small (in terms of reliable access to raw materials and size of the markets) and historically unstable, hence there has to be a super-structure of former metropolitan ‘mother countries’ of global empires using each other – but not as colonies this times, but as partners with equal rights – so the result is the EU.

    The other argument is geopolitical – being out of the EU means being part of some other power group. US? Russia? China? or the EU? – these are the options. There is no truly theoretically independent option out there so a choose of semi-dependent one has to be made. Which one gives the UK most rights and most voice? – that would be the second strategic pro-EU argument.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with this argument. I guess the issue is, it’s rational and to change peoples’ minds on being part of the EU (hopefully one day as a member) pro-EU movements (hopefully the next Parliamentary Labour Party) need to find an emotive core to this (correct) argument.

  3. Excellent. I wish all remainers (as were) would now focus on this question. Forget what went before and from now on make a positive case for Europe. Could be for EU membership or for very close alignment via an Association Agreement. Just recognise the new territory and look forward.

    1. The case has been made many times in the last four years. The most powerful argument has always been that any legislative independence would be no more than superficial in a world of big powers, and that being a fully participating member of a remarkably well-structured confederation of small independent states gives the strength of greater mass in the world. Also, the collaborative nature of it means that rogue member governments would be restrained from indulging in their more extreme fantasies. So, to summarise, membership extends and gives greater weight to our influence (and real independence) in the world, locally and globally, and provides greater protections and opportunities for our peoples.

  4. The case is probably exactly the same as the reasons given by Johnson back in 2013 (for staying in the EU), namely:
    1. Access to European market, hence attracting more foreign investment.
    2. More influence to set standards and regulations in Brussels.
    3. More global influence.
    4. Better global perception of UK (i.e. not narrow, xenophobic, backward-looking).

  5. I think now is too soon to answer this, and the answer will depend on what the relationship looks like. While negotiations are going on ANY argument for rejoining will sound premature and motivated by the frustrations of Remainers, rather than a policy case that can be scrutinised on its own merits.

    Once the negotiations are ‘done’ (or the shape of the future relationship starts to emerge), however, sovereignty may be the most plausible line of attack. There will be matters that affect the UK that we have less say over than other countries. Unless our semi-detached status has demonstrable benefits—i.e., we plainly get to do things that EU members can’t—other sovereign nations having, e.g., a veto on decisions that we will have to go along with because of an agreement signed in the past will be hard to stomach.

  6. David, even if theoretically legally possible an assassiation agreement can never be the same as membership to the EU. Otherwise why keep the distinction between A and M.
    M will also have implication you might, taking from your previous blogs and Tweets, not quite happy with. Most likely it will not only be you but a substantial – not necessarily 52/48 %- part of the, esp English, population that will not agree to it.

    Having written that, fully agree it needs to be positive and not only economically reasoning for (re-) joining the EU

  7. Perhaps there is a moral case which is something which is rarely raised. One of the arguments Margaret Thatcher used was that we had a moral obligation to help the former communist countries because of our (her) belief in the superiority of capitalism and democracy.

    It’s simplistic (arguments need to be in the age of populist sound bites) and it may not be a winning argument but I think it survives your test.

  8. We should remember that the UK was a member of EFTA when we joined. Putting aside the question of whether Denmark and Ireland would have joined if we had not, we could assume that EFTA membership had continued, and even possibly that Mrs Thatcher would have persuaded EFTA and the EC to create the Single Market together. So if approached from a position of a more powerful Norway, the purpose of joining would be to participate fully in the decision-making and appeals systems of the EC. That is, to discard for ever the idea of being a “vassal state”, with rules being agreed elsewhere, and judged by a court with no UK judges.

    This isn’t really answering your question (I think) but the alternative universe that this would start from has to be considered too.

  9. For me, the argument would be that we will always be bound in some way by European standards on goods. In that sense, membership gives us a say in making those rules, rather than trying to use soft power to influence from outside the room (using the EEA/Swiss Model as the closest example to an Associate Agreement)

  10. 1: Freedom: borders are a restriction on human freedom and we should be doing everything we can to remove them.
    2: Trust: freedom is not negative, it is positive, and can only be built through trusted and agreed institutional and social arrangements.
    3: Democracy: the alternative to secret diplomacy and an over mighty executive is transparent and open institutions.
    4: Hope: Benjamin Franklin once hoped every nation on Earth would have a Star on the Star Spangled banner, so we should hope for the same, an association of all humanity built by consent.

    1. Well really, where to start!

      Let’s start with science. The UK is already heavily committed into projects like Galileo. A hugely expensive and complex project. It seems likely that the EU will grant us some access to this (presumably at a cost) but we won’t have access to security sensitive aspects for example and development of some of the exciting projects this system will enable will be denied to us. The UK is a world leader in satellite technologies. The UK government has talked about launching it’s own system. Of course the cost of this is astronomic and there’s some doubt about whether the global authorities that control this type of thing would allow the UK to join the US, EU and Rassia in having their own system. This scientific project is one of many the UK would have a great contribution towards (UK talent will probably continue to be involved, but the country itself will no longer benefit.

      Security is another huge benefit of membership. At the moment, the EU shares intelligence among members. There’s no doubt that it’s in its interest to share with non-members and indeed UK intelligence is pretty valuable to the EU – although some headline cockups recently mean they may proceed with caution.

      I’m not someone that shares concern about the much feared EU army. Indeed such a thing seems unlikely, but obviously co-operation has huge cost benefits at a time when it would be fantastic to see money invested in health, infrastructure, education – rather than annihilation. Just a personal preference.

      As we’re about to find out, the complexities of having our own border controls will be not insignificant. Not to mention time consuming (adding cost to products, food, services etc).

      Finance. It we join the EU, hopefully that would mean the adoption of the Euro. Operating a small business and enjoying travel means I’m constantly changing money which really just lines the pockets of the rich banks. Using the same currency as several 100 million other citizens opens up opportunities and makes trading (business and pleasure) so much easier and keeps my money in my pocket – not some banker.

      The other trade benefits are well known. No need to cover these here.

      Social – well personally, I’m a European. I have an English identity of course, but I’ll always be a European. I known some Tory ministers have only just noticed mainland Europe is just off our coast, but I and many others have been aware of this for much longer. I shouldn’t have to feel isolated from our nearest neighbours, we certainly shouldn’t fear them. My life has been enriched by Europe and as a civilised society we should be removing barriers, not putting them up.

      There’s other factors like human rights, food standards, environmental protection. As a tiny country we need to build allies and frankly I see much of Europe as progress (in turns of things like living standards) as apposed to… the US for example. A country I love to visit, but every time I do, I realise how lucky I am to be European.

      How’s that for starters? Let’s start a campaign to join the EU and get our freedom back.

      1. I agree with very much all you say. I travel a lot in Europe for business, and the sheer convenience of dealing is just one other currency is immense. I really resent banks taking their little private tax from travellers changing currency.

        Schengen too is a blessing, once inside it. What a contrast to our border obsessed nation! We have never been permitted a rational debate on joining Schengen. It would save us taxpayers huge sums of money on millions of pointless passport checks on innocent people. Keeping criminals and terrorists out should be an intelligence led operation. Those border checks are an ineffective resource-hungry distraction. As an island, keeping us safe within Schengen should be amazingly easy!

      2. “UK talent will probably continue to be involved”

        Well, you might hope so, and some probably will, but most likely it will be mainly those already securely employed, and future such opportunities are now lost to British citizens. The reality is that eligibility for work with such international scientific and research projects and agencies is almost always restricted to citizens of those states who subscribe to and support them.

        Losses due to Brexit may well take some considerable time to have a marked effect on the lives of most people, and many may struggle to identify (or simply deny) how much their wages have been depressed or to make a solid connection —indeed, the Government’s strategy is clearly to rely on the damage accruing gradually, together with obfuscation and blank refusal to even bother producing credible assessments— but the effect on those of us who work in such international fields has already been drastic and immediate, even ignoring the progressive exclusion which has characterised the last four years due to complete uncertainty over future arrangements (uncertainty due to the Government’s total and abject failure to offer even any credible indication of any future direction which could be considered helpful).

        A small example: yesterday was the deadline for applications for a large tranche of highly interesting (and unusually well paid!) work in a very hi-tech field for which I could have pointed to my agency in drafting the official strategy which underpins and gives rise to these current developments. Literally: “The reason the description of your mission says ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’ is because I wrote those words in my contribution to formal policy documents;” “This piece of research which is cited to justify your funding was managed and edited by me;” etc.

        The (first paragraph of the) call for applications politely explained that British applicants could not be considered eligible unless they had dual citizenship with another qualifying country.
        As of 1 February, my British passport is a fatal liability; sooner or later the same will apply to millions of UK citizens. Though at least they won’t have so much competition for fruit-picking jobs!

      3. More damaging for science and technology, however, than blighting opportunity for British “citizens of nowhere” (as we now must call ourselves), is the effect of (self-)exclusion from the leading edge of pre-commercial procurement. Procurement contracts for Galileo are assigned broadly in proportion to the level of support provided, with a bias weighted in favour of the most committed core supporters who will ultimately keep the project afloat through adversity. The UK was, at the relevant time, a key proponent of this formula.

        Procurement contracts for such advanced projects are not merely valuable for the income they provide, nor even for the support and security that offers to high-tech industry, but represent the very best opportunities to benefit from invaluable knowledge and technology transfer.
        A mission to, say, land a probe on an asteroid or to develop sustainable fusion power will require highly sophisticated components and supporting services which are beyond anything available on the open market, and contractors must therefore be funded also to develop the skills and capabilities required to create such unique artefacts; better still, the top project scientists and experts have a keen interest in and often closely support the acquisition of such capacities and expertise, which can then later be employed to develop ground-breaking new products and services for more commercial markets.

        Yet the UK has now called itself and its enterprises out of many such projects, particularly Galileo, by having an indignant strop over reduced access according to rules which it had itself supported, and, at least for the time being (although the omens do not look good), ITER though its apparently thoughtless and ill-advised dumping of the Euratom Treaty.

        As you write: “The UK is a world leader in satellite technologies.”
        The problem is that if the most exciting jobs on the newest and juiciest projects go elsewhere, then the top talent will gradually follow. In the private sector work visas will be found for the best, although Britons will still always be at a disadvantage as large collaborative projects frequently require mobility for international work whereas visas generally cover only a single country.

        As a side note, I’m really not sure that those who hope to attract the so-called “brightest and best” to the UK by offering them *special* visas appreciate quite how unattractive such an offer sounds to many of those whom it targets. Most of my best friends are academic researchers — I know more than one person who has turned down a decent full professorship in the UK over the past three years because of Brexit.

  11. First of all, the British (and others) should make a case against the French invention called nationalism (the Nation) as well as against Mercantilism. Only, after these arguments have been won, among others I imagine, will there a good foundation for arguing for an Application to join the EU, which, by that time, will most probably look very different from what it is today.

  12. Membership is certainly preferable
    But since there is no prospect of the referendum result being reversed in the near future an association agreement is probably the best option available.

  13. There are three reasons why the United Kingdom (or its successor states) should join the European Union, which of course implies joining Schengen and the Euro.

    1. A services-dominated economy requires the four freedoms of the EU Common Market.
    2. There are substantial economies of scale in government and diplomacy. Joining the EU would mean some 30,000 fewer civil servants in Whitehall, and far greater geopolitical influence.
    3. English politicians are rather dim and need multilateral oversight.

  14. IHMO, if future UK membership of the EU ever does happen, it won’t be driven by ‘in principle’ arguments. It’ll be driven by the geopolitics of that time.

    Just as it’s silly to imagine the UK never, ever joining the EU, it’s silly right now to construct a case for joining. By the time it comes around again, the UK, the EU and the world will all have changed.

    FWIW, I suspect future Scottish membership of the EU will be a significant driver for what’s left of the ‘UK’.

  15. I would merely update the arguments used during our first, eventually successful attempt to join the EEC.

    Nothing fundamentally has changed.

    We are still a tiny group of islands offshore of a bigger economic community than it was in the 1960s.

    Moreover, we no longer need to fight off the Russians (and the United States) to gain access to the economies of the Eastern Bloc now that many of them are members of the EU.

    As for choosing between an Associate Agreement and full membership then it is best to be inside the tent pissing out than some half way state where you are still being urinated on by those in the tent without your pee making much impact on them.

  16. The objective case – this is essentially what we are talking about here – is strong on several fronts: trade, legislation (especially where future technology standards are concerned), cooperation around big projects such as space, nuclear, science, policing, etc.

    There is a small problem, though in that a lot of that can be achieved without full membership. The case for full member ship seems to hang on whether we want to influence the direction of all the above, or simply accept. Given that we have strong expertise in a lot of the above areas, it the case to be at the heart of shaping future direction of forces that will shape lives, seems compelling.

  17. The world of 2020 is very different to the world of 1975, or even that of 2000. People now interact with a network of economic and personal relationships that are global. Unless the UK cuts itself off from those global networks – which would come at a huge cost – it will have to play by the rules that govern them. The state will be moulded by the way people live their lives, not the other way around.

    While it is true that a close association agreement could satisfy these human requirements – including allowing things like freedom of movement and protections for the individual from state and corporate overreach – to do so would give up on the ability to hold power to account.

    A single nation state is unable to hold globalised power to account for its actions. We see this most acutely in the issue of climate change. For example, the state of Australia is unable to provide security for its citizens in the face of fires caused by global climate change. It is also unable to hold to account the globalised power that created those conditions. While climate change is the most obvious example of state futility in the face of globalisation, there are others. These include living standards and changing equality in a globalised world, which were significant themes in the Brexit outcome itself.

    Holding global power to account therefore requires political structures on a super-national scale. The EU is currently the best work in progress towards that necessity. To give up on such structures is to give up on the possibility of meaningful politics at all. Perversely, absent such international politics, the state risks becoming increasingly futile and irrelevant because it cannot politically face a globalised economy.

  18. An interesting question but not a very useful thought experiment…

    It is like asking, following a divorce, what is the case for getting back together with one’s spouse (and children, house, pets… ) – as opposed to taking one’s chances with one of millions of other potential partners.

    History matters.

    1. “Millions” of prospective partners are not available in this context. And, they are all very far away and will remain so. A look at a globe shows that we are a tiny isolated enclave in the North East Atlantic, virtually surrounded by 27 prospective partners + others who already have a proven, transparent and workable way of managing relationships among themselves and with new aspirants.

      Not the excitement of the chase, perhaps, but a great mature relationship in which to spend our later years.

  19. I do not think that an association agreement (AA) can ever get close to practically amounting to membership. Are you thinking of a specific AA. I think that the EU will not agree to a Swiss deal as it is very hard to implement.

    Then there is EEA membership. I just can’t see the UK, with the current political narrative on money, laws and borders agreeing to join the EEA, although Starmer hinted that this could be his position. That said, I think leavers will reject it outright and many remainers will feel that it if we join the EEA, why not go the whole hog and rejoin?

    On the positive case for Europe, you are right – it has to be made but I think that is only possible once the main leave arguments have been comprehensively proven to be false. But, nothing will happen until the UK is able to look at itself (strengths AND weaknesses) objectively. If the starting point is ‘we are great’ and can do anything, we will get nowhere. The reason is that joining the EU makes sense only if there is an objective analysis of the UK’s relative power and prospects. In other words, if Brexit fails to deliver any benefits, the economy shrinks, and the UK goes through a few national humiliations (as its influence will have declined) AND the UK avoids the bear trap of blaming others for this, then rejoining becomes possible, but not before.

    1. “the EU will not agree to a Swiss deal ”

      Yes, it is (and always was) vanishingly unlikely that anything like the so-called ‘Swiss deal’ will be on offer mainly because, as has been clear for years, the EU themselves detest the arrangement because of the sand it throws into the working of EU machinery; in any case, the Swiss position arose only as a continuation of existing integration when Swiss momentum towards membership stalled and would not be offered again, especially not to a country set on divergence.

      In fact, the EU is increasingly determined that the Swiss treaties will need to be modernised in order to support more effective dynamic alignment, and will likely use any crisis in the relationship to push forward this agenda. They have even said as much publicly, for example in the Communications following a Council summit in December 2014.

      All the discussion of the so-called ‘Swiss option’ was, I’m afraid, ignorant nonsense from the very start, and should never have been taken seriously by anybody had our lazy media and politicians been doing their jobs properly.

  20. A major reason is that the UK is a significant sized European nation that ought to have full representation and voting rights at the de facto UN of Europe. Much will depend on how politics deveolps in the USA – the more the States follows a Trumpian doctrine, the more essential a strong and united Europe is.
    Economically, the gravitational model cannot be defeated – we trade most with our nearest neighbours and it is in all our interests to optimise that. As a part of a bloc of 500 million, the UK has more significance than a stand alone nation of some 65 million.
    Any response to the (supposed) climate crisis requires that the UK works with like-minded states in the EU.
    Worker, environmental and consumer protections are much better protected as a member of the EU than trusting to the likes of Johnson.
    The EU will never morph into a “United States of Europe” – there is not (and never has been) any appetite for this at the national level (hint Belgium is a federal state as is Germany – no nation state is going to cede control to a supranational authority – which is why the UN will always just be a talking shop).
    In time, the benefits of freedom of movement will become clearer to Brits at home – those of us who have lived elsewhere in the EU need no convincing of its benefits (likewise Schengen and the Euro).

  21. The positive message is – there’s a gang out there in your neighbourhood doing well and you’re missing out. The others beyond that you want to join up with are doing well but won’t see you as an equal member they’ll just exploit you – you’ve got nothing they want whereas you’d neighbours like you and your history as a friend and neighbour. They’ll treat you as an equal as long as you join up as a fully fledged member of their club. You don’t get everything you want but much more than anyone else has to offer and as you know independence means nothing in this world. So what’s to lose? Join up.

  22. The positive case for joining the EU is simple.
    Being a fully committed and involved member of a continent-wide co-operative polity, which we belong with geographically and culturally, is the only realistic way for us to exercise power and influence and ensure our security in a world which includes superpowers. It delivers a wide range of benefits and opportunities far beyond what could be achieved on our own as a medium sized nation which no longer has advantages in natural resources or in technological advantage.
    What we can achieve with our partners is far, far greater than we can achieve on our own.

    1. But what of those who are adamant that culturally we are more akin to the USA and the White Commonwealth?

  23. In terms of personal freedoms one could make the argument that joining would give British people the right to work or retire in Europe. It would facilitate frictions trade since the person driving the truck off the ferry would have as much right to pass border posts as the goods inside.

    In the past the focus has been stopping “them” from coming “here” while ignoring the obvious corollary.

  24. IMHO (based on other’s cleverer opinions) most people want to live in liberal democracies, where a market economy operates, which gives people work in order that they can have a decent life.

    Clearly this structure is (and may have always been) under strain in “the west” where Europe and the US perhaps best exemplify liberal democracies with market economies, the causes are too complicated for me to understand e.g. over financialization, lack of progressive taxation, disparity in accumulation of capital, insecurity of work.

    However, most people want this structure to work better, to make sure it protects their human, democratic, working, consumer, environmental, [insert another] rights, while at the same time being able to access work that pays and is worthwhile.

    EU membership offers the UK the best route to achieving this goal of a better functioning society based on liberal democracy and a market economy. The main reasons for this are:

    Its single market, which makes it an economic superpower both in terms of a huge market to sell into (small example would there be a UK fishing industry without tariff free access to the EU’s market?) and by trade agreements the EU signs that help exporters more easily access new markets, which in turn powers Eurozone economies.

    The freedom to live and work anywhere in the EU – data suggests freedom of movement remains popular if it’s explained it works both ways – learning to cooperate with your closest neighbours is crucial to the peaceful progress of societies.

    It being a rules-based organisation, which may make it a behemoth of an institution and a layer of seemingly onerous bureaucracy but it provides recourse for individuals who can (as far as is possible in this world) rely on an institution to protect them.

    The alternative is what we face – governments that believe in supply side, market knows best extremism, happy to let entire sectors of the economy go under in pursuit of (very often) needless profit: “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”

    Argument based on the economic imperative did not win the referendum in 2016 and may continue to lose against what I believe to be a lot of arguments made in bad faith, but in my opinion the economic reality is still true. The EU is imperfect, but it remains the best option for the largest number of people in the UK to be able to have decent lives.

  25. I think that this is the right question.

    Sadly, I don’t think that we can ever rejoin the EU, mainly because we would get a much worse deal than the one we had until last week. We would have to join the Euro and wouldn’t get a rebate, for example.

    Having said that, our direction of travel will inevitably be to move closer to the EU. Freedom of movement is popular (particularly with younger people) and in a world dominated by Trump’s USA and China, getting closer to Europe is the obvious option.

    1. Denmark and Sweden seem to manage to keep themselves out of the Euro. As for the rebate – it’s probably good that we have to manage without. If Brexit really doesn’t bring home the goodies that the Leavers want, then being in even with no rebate is surely a better position to be in?

  26. All nation states and perhaps particularly the UK need to be able to give a plausible account to themselves of their position in the world. The British Empire used to provide such an account for the UK. Only confident and full-hearted membership of the EU can today provide anything remotely similar for this country. Singapore-on-Thames and the 51st state of America are the purest fantasy. It is no coincidence (as they used to say in Pravda) that Brexit threatens the United Kingdom with destruction. Without a (realistic) vision the people perish.

  27. Freedom of movement across EU and EEA for citizens, goods and services.

    Horizon 2020 and Erasmus.

    Single Market and Customs Union – market of more than 500m people.

    Shape rules and regulations that affect UK businesses.

    Schengen, Euro, peace, security.


  28. The ultimate aim of human kind must be to eventually explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
    Star Trek did this via the united federation of planets.
    Countries and planets working together against nationalism, ignorance and greed.
    The EU is the first step towards this vision…lets be part of it.

  29. The UK was the sick man of Europe when we joined. If we have to forget all that 47 years of membership did for us then it’s as the sick man of Europe that you have to start your little thought experiment, not as the world’s Xth largest economy.

  30. I respectfully disagree with the premise of this question. Brexit is a complete and utter waste of time, money and was procured by a fraudulent corruption of the UK’s constitution.

    On this basis it should not now be necessary (on any level) to put forward a postive justification for the UK rejoining the EU.

    That said, if human beings do want to survive as a species they will have to abandon the concept of nationalism. To date the EU is the best effort we have made to do this.

    The ECJ’s relationship with the EU’s translators office and the pressure the latter exerts on the former to keep its judgments short so that everyone can understand them is one small but powerful example of how important it is to have a genuinely international legal system supporting a social contract that every Member State buys into and benefits from. There are many others.

    An Association Agreement with the EU without freedom of movement and not overseen by the ECJ will fall a long way short of full membership. It is best to recognise this now and keep opposing Brexit.

  31. There is a case.
    Full membership is the simplest way, with most benefits.
    The only people to lose would be local (i mean UK, in this particular case) politicians who would either lost their jobs or have their power diminshed.

  32. As an English person living in Scotland my short term hopes are based on Scottish independence and then Scottish membership.

    For any application to be accepted surely laws must be in place to make referenda meaningful, say an 80% majority. Over the next decade many Leavers will die off and I hope the younger generation can provide that majority.

    For now, nothing noticeable will happen during the transition period. After that many aspects of our lives will be seen to have been the consequence of membership and not just part of our British birthright. That is when the pressure to join starts.

    1. What referendum?

      If the issue is put in the General Election Manifesto of one or more parties and a Government with a working majority is elected off the back of said manifestos then that should be more than enough.

      We are in numerous international bodies, some of whose remits and rules would give many a Brexiteer apoplexy, if only they knew about them. However, we, the People, have never been asked in any referendum as to whether or not we wish to belong to them.

      Our membership of CITES springs to mind as a perfect example of an organisation that would not meet with the approval of a fair few Leave supporters. We joined on 2nd August 1976 and our entry came into force on 31st October the same year.

      I have enquired of kippers, in the past, as to whether or not we would be having a referendum on our membership of NATO. A body whose military commander is invariably a member of the US military. A man who has direct command of British troops, but who is ultimately responsible to the President of the United States of America in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the military forces of the USA.

      No Kipper ever gave me a coherent answer as to why a referendum on our EU membership should not be followed by one on our membership of NATO.

      I do not recall ever getting around to explaining to these folk the meaning of Article 5 of NATO’s Charter. I am up for doing so, if Richard Burgon is in need of an explanation as to why his Peace Pledge idea was undermined over 70 years ago not just by Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, but also Aneurin Bevan.

      In wholly taking back control from Brussels of trade negotiations, Boris Johnson has put, courtesy of the Royal Prerogative, the decision as to whether or not to sign off any future trade deal, or for that matter any other international agreement, with any country or body in the hands of just one person, himself. A successor might change that decision, but, ceteris paribus, without binding the hands of a future Prime Minister to reverse or vary said decision.

      We will not be asked in a referendum to agree the content of any deal with the EU, despite many Brexiteers citing the fact we were not asked to vote on past EU treaties as grounds for leaving the EU.

      The following is an extract from the Financial Times in October of last year.

      “How tired one gets of the well worn cliché “the full-hearted consent of the people”? What exactly is meant by this? Referenda for every piece of legislation? If this was the case we would have no race relations act, abortions would still be illegal and hanging still be in force. All these laws were passed without this full-hearted consent nonsense but, if the polls are to be believed, in the face of a determined 70 to 80 per cent of the electors’ wishes to the contrary.

      These are not my words. They were published on the letters page of the London Evening Standard in March 1975.”

      “What makes this letter interesting is that, a day or two after its publication, it was cited with great approval by the then leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the House of Commons.”

      Clement Attlee in a letter to Winston Churchill, dated 21st May 1945.

      “I could not consent to the introduction in our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism.”

      I think we may safely say that Edmund Burke would not approve of referendums, either and, given how he approvingly cited Burke on the role of a Member of Parliament, to be a representative and not a delegate, Richard Burgon, neither would have Winston Churchill.

  33. David

    It’s an interesting challenge, but not really possible to give a good answer. Not only is the EU different to what it would have been had UK not been a member, but UK is different by virtue of having been a member. In the areas I have the most specialist knowledge of – business supply chains and regulation – the entire shape of things is different because of membership. If UK had never been a member of the EU that shape would look very different but what it would look like I don’t know and no one could know.

    Similarly, in areas I have much less knowledge of. For example, everything about the NI border and GFA would be different. Would there even have been a GFA were it not for UK and Ireland being in the EU? Probably (almost certainly) not.

    If there’s ever going to be a case made for UK to rejoin the EU, I think it will be framed in terms of what the EU (post-Brexit) and UK (post-Brexit) look like, rather than what they might look like had the UK never been a member.

    That’s because, philosophically, there’s no counterfactual and because, politically, all that really matters is what’s deliverable at any given time.

    All the best


    1. I suspect the GFA may well have been possible if the UK had never joined the EU. Ireland joined at the same time as the UK, partly at least because of the strong trading relationship between the two countries. So, if the UK had never joined, then it’s likely that Ireland would not have either. The US played a very important role in facilitating the GFA. EU non-membership would not have affected that.

      1. Patrick Kielty would beg to differ.

        “Dear @BorisJohnson

        There is no better Brexit when it comes to the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland. As you still seem bamboozled by all this Paddywackery here’s a few pointers for your next stab in the dark.

        Northern Ireland is made up of a majority of Unionists (as in the Conservative and Unionist Party) and, believe it or not, a rather large minority of Nationalists (as in Irish Nationalists). These Irish Nationalists don’t see themselves as British but rather inconveniently as Irish (who knew?).

        For over 30 years we killed each other because of these differences which means Northern Ireland is nothing like Camden or Westminster.

        The Good Friday Agreement ended that violence by the following devious magic. Unionists were guaranteed that Northern Ireland would be part of the UK until the majority voted otherwise.

        The Irish border was removed and the island linked so Nationalists could pretend they were already living in a United Ireland (yes, Tony Blair did sleight of hand much better than you).

        Some of these Nationalists then accepted being part of the UK as their day to day lives were essentially Irish.

        This cunning plan was sold to us on the basis that we were all part of the EU therefore fixation on nationality was so last World War.”


        UK and Eire membership of the EU, bringing with it Freedom of Movement arguably made the Good Friday Agreement possible in a way that would not have been possible, otherwise.

        1. In the week before the extraordinary Saturday meeting of Parliament, Arlene Foster met with the leaderships of just two groups in Northern Ireland.

          They were not politicians, community leaders or representatives of the business community. They were the leaderships of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force.

          The Unionist Men of Violence were in no mood to compromise on the hard border down the Irish Sea ahead of the humiliation of being made to accept in Northern Ireland both same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose on the Monday following the Saturday session.

          One has to hand it to Boris Johnson that since that Saturday he has managed to achieve something that had eluded many an illustrious holder of the office of Prime Minister and unite the various communities of (Northern) Ireland. Alas, against him.

          But big majority, you say?

          In any other part of the United Kingdom you (and the Commentariat) would have a point.

          The size of a Government’s majority at Westminster has never put a brake on the Ulster Unionists making their feelings known through word and deed.

          I imagine the planned border down the Irish Sea, its paperwork, staffing and physical structures will give the UDA and UVF plenty of opportunity to remind Johnson of the words of Winston Churchill:

          “I am where I was. Then came the great War. Every institution, almost, in the, world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world, but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world. That says a lot for the persistency with which Irish men on the one side or the other are able to pursue their controversies. It says a great deal for the power which Ireland has, both Nationalist and Orange, to lay their hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics, and to hold, dominate, and convulse, year after year, generation after generation, the politics of this powerful country.”

          After their meeting with Arlene Foster, publicly acknowledged by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the UDA and UVF said they were reserving their position as to how to respond to Boris Johnson’s volte-face on the Back Stop.

          Johnson had attended the DUP conference in November 2018 and spoken from the platform, urging the party to resist the Northern Irish backstop.

          “If we genuinely wanted to do free trade deals, if we wanted to cut tariffs, if we wanted to vary our regulation, then we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU,” he said.

          “And we would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on top of those extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea that are already envisaged in the Withdrawal Agreement.

          “Now I have to tell you, no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.”

          I look forward to Dominic Cummings, with his empathy deficit and poor grasp of history, addressing this particular problem, wholly of Johnson’s making, with his team of weirdoes and misfits.

  34. David: You are right to say that we need to make the “positive case” for rejoining the EU. But—I think you are wrong to say (or believe) that we should abandon all reference to what has happened since 2016, let alone since 1973.

    Re the positive case: All of the comments regarding economics, science, geopolitics/security, and meaningful as opposed to pseudo-sovereignty are correct and should constantly be made.

    However, there is also and always has been a cultural/emotional case. We should reflect on the feelings many people have had since the referendum and especially since the last election. As one author put it, “We live with the undertow of sadness and dread”; and see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/07/government-imploding-may-boris-johnson-exclude-journalists-john-crace-digested-week , and https://twitter.com/ByDonkeys/status/1223175366421946369 .

    I and most of the people I know feel like that—despite being unlikely, due to our particular circumstances, to suffer a great deal of economic harm from Brexit. Nor even, I think, is contemplation of the economic harm to other people the mainspring of those feelings, although it is a large contributing factor.

    Reflecting on this, I’m inclined to think that the feeling is akin to what we would feel if irrational, even abusive, parents insisted on separating us from the rest of our family.

    An important part of the positive case for rejoining the EU is that we are part of the European family, we always have been, and we always will be. Of course, to quote The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” But, since 1945, none of the ‘downs’ have been more than quarrels, often as much of our own making as theirs; and, since 1973, working together as an extended family has been positive for all of us. And not only economically and geopolitically: it felt good. And it felt good largely because having a close, practical relationship with our extended family expressed much of what was best in our nuclear family.

    Brexiteers have claimed that of course we can be outside the EU and still have a close relationship with Europe. Yet their reasons for saying we needed to leave the EU have been, explicitly, claims that the EU has oppressed us and forced on us things that harm us. Which is like saying ‘your cousins have bullied you so we’re separating you from them—but of course you can continue to have a close relationship with them.’ Yet we know that our cousins have treated us decently.

    The positive case for EU membership needs to incorporate the feelings which are bound up with the facts. And—returning to my second initial point—the feelings and the facts include history. Why deny history? Because the Brexiteers keep saying ‘We won, get over it’? But no sane person simply ‘gets over’ facts.

    The fact is that EU membership never did us any harm, but on the contrary did us a lot of good. There is in fact no reason not to have EU membership, no reason to have an ‘Association Agreement’ instead; and EU membership best reflects our— England’s, the UK’s, and Europe’s—best aspirations and values. The lifeblood of Brexit is hostility; Rejoin is the Ode to Joy. (https://theconversation.com/beethoven-or-brexit-battle-for-chart-domination-shows-uks-divided-soul-131158 )

  35. A few reflections on your interesting, if quite theoretical question, seen the political times we are living.

    As many have already mentioned above, all the reasons to rejoin the EU remain the same as they were when you first joined, but, in my opinion, are more urgent and existential in nature now than they were then (for the UK).

    In 1973 there was no reason to expect the UK to break up, by not joining, or by joining the EEC. Today NI has the Good Friday agreement and the new Withdrawal Agreement — never mind the changing demographics, all gently nudging away from UK rule towards a united Ireland. The GFA gives NI an effective veto over London as far as its future is concerned, the WA gives NI the EU’s (read: Irish) rule book as its every-day life bible. NI is already severed from the main UK body in its essence, if not yet by legal separation. Cue the Scottish looking at NI’s freedom of choice — and the existential nature of the question becomes apparent.

    Further. In 1973 the world was still bipolar (with and without the pun), the Cold War was policy and ideology driven “good vs evil” game, played by USSR and the USA. Europe was a part of the playground, and we, the European nations, were all bit players on our own continent. Joining forces then was a logical step to take.

    In 2020 the world has gone full multi-polar mode with spasms of good old Nationalism taking hold in mature democracies, unfortunately including the UK, that makes joining forces ever more urgent. Spot the irony and dilemma we are facing.

    Ergo, all the reasons there were in 1973 for joining holds today, but are an order of magnitude more relevant and true in 2020.

    Of course, politically speaking, and in reality, there is no returning back now. Brexit is 8 days old, transition period applies until the end of the year. The prelude. All noises emanating from London are belligerent and accusatory towards the EU by all those who ‘matter’, ie. HMG. As in ‘cake-ism wins or the EU took your “rights” away’ sort of rhetoric. By 2021, when reality is about to hit, the EU will be seen as the enemy — a foe standing between the freedom and dreams of its people, in the UK. Inevitably this will translate to joining hands with Mr. Trump’s crusade to “break up the EU”, because “we ganged up on America” by developing our single market…, well, by creating the EU. These are the political forces at work, so future looks grim to say the least. Caveat: there is the possibility that Mr. Trump might lose in November, but I am afraid he will win, one way or another. If he does lose, then the Brexit crash will come much, much faster in political terms — and quite likely in all shapes and forms.

    You floated the possibility of an Association Agreement with the EU. Since it can be anything, that is, indeed, the likely destination awaiting the UK/EU relations. Our links are too complex to deal in a ‘trade only’ type of an agreement. To think that such an agreement could be “an agreement between equals” as Mr. Johnson is trying to frame his hope of a deal is blatantly absurd. The UK was an equal member (+) in the EU, with other member states. The UK is equal with Germany, France, the Dutch etc., but it will not be equal with the EU, no one is, as it is not a nation. Only way to access it ‘equally’ is to abide by its laws ‘equally’. Yes, it can be very close, indeed, with 4 freedoms, customs union, the whole shebang, but you will not vote in the council, nor be represented in the parliament and you will pay for the cohesion fund. That is a big difference for less of everything.

    Since I am an EU citizen (a Finn living in the Netherlands) I am not so concerned how you will sell ‘rejoining’ to the people of the UK, try sell it to us first. Why would we want to let you back in exactly? Are you willing to commit to the Euro, Schengen, a nascent EU defense force, etc.?

    From EU’s geo-strategic point of view (a little) time will do the work for us. The harder and more politically wrought Brexit comes, the faster the disintegration of the UK will proceed. NI will unite with Ireland — and return to the fold of the EU. The Scots will find their way to independence — and via EEA, I would assume, road back to the EU.

    The real challenge might be: what will the English/Wales narrative be to rejoin in 2035? Peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations?

    1. Ah, yes, “the you are all Brexiteers now (or will be soon)” assertion.

      That line is even less credible than the By the Sword Divided rhetoric still popular amongst much of the Commentariat. Even the (Un)English (Un)Civil War(s) had three main groups of participants whose memberships were quite fluid.

      The turnout at the 2016 referendum was 72%. So the electorate split 28% no opinion, 35% Remain and 37% Leave. In 2020, we have four groups. The remainder of the three groups from 2016 and those on the electoral roll today, who were not eligible to vote in 2016.

      It does not follow that as more Brexit ordure hits the fan that a majority of the electorate will blame the EU for the failings of a Government that they did not elect. A Government that has just got Brexit done.

      Boris Johnson gained the active support of 28% of the electorate at the 2019 General Election for what you grandiloquently refer to as “the freedom and dreams of its people”. Nine percentage points less than the support for Leave in 2016.

      Johnson’s net gain in 2019 over May’s performance in 2017 was 300,000 votes. Corbyn in 2019 managed to lose Labour 1.2 million votes in comparison with 2017 not to another political party, but to not voting at all.

      I am a Remain supporter from a working class background who has some sympathy with the view held by some Leave supporters that they are patronised by a certain type of Remain campaigner. Currently, that type is urging folk not to say I told you so when Brexiteers complain about how they are not getting the Brexit for which they voted. We should turn the other cheek and forgive them their sins etc.

      There is a reasonable chance that the Jaguar plant at Castle Bromwich will close, courtesy of the negotiating strategy, using the term loosely, currently being pursued by Johnson.

      I envisage a scenario in which a bellyaching Leave voter goes to collect his cards alongside his soon to be ex work colleagues and does not keep his thoughts to himself. I imagine that, at the very least, he will be told to “Shut the fuck up”. I would not rule out an exchange of blows in such a situation.

      Folk losing the best jobs they may ever have are unlikely to turn the other cheek.

      And, of course, Grandad, for example, may have proudly voted Leave and celebrated Brexit on 31st January 2020. I am not sure any “You lost, get over it” line of argument will comfort a granddaughter losing her job at the Jag.

      And, for the uninitiated, the production pauses at Jaguar may be putting people out of work, because the company employs agency staff, even on the production line.

      Leave got over the line in 2016 partly by peddling simple messages.

      For example, the EU is responsible for much of the failings of our society and economy.

      There is a bitter irony that when redundancies are announced today, say in the car industry, that Leave campaigners, in an effort to deflect attention from BREXIT, ask voters to consider all the factors behind such job losses.

      Alas for Leave supporters, it is a lot easier for folk to put car plant closures solely down to BREXIT rather than a range of reasons of which BREXIT is one (and may be not even the over riding one).

      By turning the Brexit referendum from an advisory poll into an instruction, the Government created a situation in which one section of the population might blame another for the consequences resulting out of respecting the Will of (a minority of) the People.

      In my time working for the Department of Work and Pensions, I never came across an instance where one group of shop floor workers might blame another group for putting them out of a job.

      Brexit has made that possible.

      And, in the unlikely instance of all of the Jaguar workforce blaming the EU for the closure of the plant it will provide, at best, an emotional spasm for them.

      Blaming the EU will not provide them with jobs as good as those they are losing. They will expect their own Government to find new employment for them. After all, Johnson is pledging to grow the economy faster than for many a decade and rebalance it away from London and the South East.

      And, whilst Birmingham is not in the North, it is in the English Midlands which are certainly not in the South (unless you are the MP for Wigan or the Mayor of Greater Manchester).

      I gather Free Trade Agreements may be renegotiated. They are not set in stone and such a renegotiation to help stem the tide of relative economic decline may be the starting point for revisiting the decision to Leave in its entirety.

  36. This was the approach that Corbyn took when campaigning for Remain before the referendum; he went into detail about the socialist case for staying in the EU which included looking at its faults to inform the case the Reform as well, particularly in the light of eg the way Greece had recently been treated by the EU.
    It was evident at the time that the media and neo-liberal political supporters of the EU suppressed all of his assessment and campaign (to the extent that anyone who hadn’t attended one of his campaign meetings didn’t believe he had campaigned for Remain). So whatever the case now or at the time that Rejoining might become a credible issue (for the whole of the UK or any current part of it), the political and media circumstances will control its success or otherwise.

  37. @John Turner

    Thank you for your ‘cri de coeur’ reply. While I agree with most of the data and points you raise regarding the issues, I think you might have misunderstood where I am coming from.

    I am (happily) aware of the strong pro-EU section that is present in the UK electorate; in most opinion polls (ex-) remain forces have, pretty much since the referendum of 2016, a slight majority for EU membership. Great. What is the value of that now? In political terms — absolutely nothing, I am afraid.

    Mr. Johnson’s government will have four more years to, um, govern, the UK has left the EU — and HMG plans to strike a deal with the EU that will drastically severe and change our relationships across the board. You might not all be ‘Brexiters’, heavens be praised, but you (the UK and its citizens that is) are all out. No two ways about it.

    The very reasons your electorate voted for Brexit to start with, aren’t vanished. A broken electoral system, out-dated constitutional frame work, mendacious and unqualified political class, substandard gutter ‘journalism’ passing for news, and a shockingly ill-educated populace to boot. (I say ‘ill-educated’ purposefully, as the UK is not an ‘uneducated’ nation by any means, au contraire.) I hasten to add, that all of the above can be found, in some measure, every where in the EU (and the rest of the world), in some combination, but ‘Brexit by minority’- style coup d’etat, if I do not mince words, would be (almost) an impossible feat to pull off.

    Brexit is a form of a(n) (old) political ideology. Mr. Johnson’s ‘vision’ could be simply called national socialism. After all, Brexit was about ‘regaining’ sovereignty and ‘helping’ the ‘forgotten’ people. Promises of great national healing and unity, and state investment and intervention to lift up the left behind regions and people — all wrapped in the national flag and sense of exceptionalism is a text book case of said ideology. Mr. Trump’s America is another example of the same playbook. Granted, the ‘socialism’ part is not to be spoken of as such, as neither man believes in shared well-being of any kind, but the implied ‘substance’ of their ‘promises’ would make any old socialist all warm and fuzzy.

    I am not equating the UK, or the US, with Germany in the 1940’s (yet), but they both act and sound like Germany and Italy c. 1933. Let us hope the similarities end there, but we all better be vigilant.

    An important point to be made about all this; I do not regard the UK as the main driver of this insanity. This has ‘made in America’- stamp all over it. The UK is Austria (and most likely the patsy) in this latest installment of merry-go-around of ‘how not to learn from history, because we are special people’.

    So, by all means, be a proud and a loud remainer/rejoiner, but be aware, that the political winds blowing are not on our side — and those in power in the UK and the US are not our friends. For them the EU must be broken up — and with it, the post-war world order.

    That is the real battle. And, we are losing at the moment.

  38. At this point the only likely effective argument to rejoin will be financial / economic. Having been through the pain of Brexit, it is doubtful the argument can now be won on cultural or emotional grounds. Only if it can be demonstrated that rejoining and paying our (say) net £10bn EU budget contribution will improve the economy by (say) £30bn is any action likely to be taken. Geopolitical and trade arguments are unlikely to be forceful enough to rejoin in future – we are more likely to simply become a passive rule-taker (driven perhaps by business behaviour) than we are to rejoin.

  39. “ Association Agreements can be in many forms, and in principle there is no reason why one cannot be the basis of a relationship so close as to be practically indistinguishable from membership.”

    Isn’t that the old GATT24 argument once rubbished by Remainers?

  40. David, I am not on Twitter but read yours regularly and you have nearly always been a wonderful voice of reason, and have introduced some lovely memes over these past few years – thank you for all sorts of legal education and many bright moments away from the dark abyss of politics.

    So, hoping that has buttered you up enough that you might answer my question: now that you have admitted to being a procurement law expert – I have read this piece by Prof. Richard Murphy (tax expert, not procurement law expert) – he actually quotes another piece, but anyway, the link:


    So, is it that the UK government applies procurement law badly – it certainly feels like it from a Scottish perspective – or are the EU not playing by their own rules?

    It has always seemed to me most of the faults with the EU are more to do with the U.K. application of regulation and it’s own influence in the EU (whatever happened to TTIP?!), so I am interested in the specific case as given above and if the conclusions given do have any basis.

  41. Very late but I missed this article when it was posted. As a long time believer in the incompatibility of “English” and European motives for economic and political cooperation, I’ve been convinced that some day, the UK would leave the Union, especially given the direction of travel in both polities and especially their interest groups.

    What could attract a future UK public to the (also future) EU? In the first place, a failure to integrate with North America (in essence, becoming a remote Canada, or more similar to Australia. That failure ould lie in exactly one of the reasons for UK aversion to the “Union idea”, ie the UK is not a natural client state, in the sense other NATO members (possible exception of France) are. But the US is uncomfortable with equals so any association with the US will have an element of clientship. That is at odds with the “taking back control” idea. It can be propagandized away for a while (one of Mr Johnson’s key skills) but not forever and once the sacrifices inherent in that relationship would become visible to the less well educated eye, things might change. I remind the elderly to the completely misleading fabrications about the respective roles in WWII of the US and the (then) British Empire. The reality was a US bailout of an old and basically deafeated rival, not a victorious UK as many people believe. The UK lost many more lives than the US but did not gain anything, unlike the US. Compare that to school texts deep into the 1970s.

    The other reason is that the “future EU” may be very different from the present. It is possible, but not likely yet, that once the focus on expansion (a traditionally British element) is dead (likely in the near future), the next phase would be a division of EU countries that might lead to a status for most economically less developed countries (essentially the former USSR satellites plus Cyprus, Greece and Malta, Poland a question mark) not too different from association. They may continue to use the Euro (and Poland and Sweden would be forced to do so, or follow Denmark’s example) but would not have a decisionmaking role. Where would the UK (or Great Britain, as NI will have left the UK within the next 5 years) aim for then: an inner circle role? a long apprenticeship as an associate among countries like Bulgaria and Cyprus?

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