10th January 2021
For many who were ‘Remainers’ the obvious next step is to become ‘Rejoiners’ with the object of ‘reversing Brexit’.
And in pursuing this object they will understandably point to the many misfortunes and problems that have been – and will be – caused by Brexit.
The hope, if not expectation, seems to be that the sheer accumulation of adverse evidence will mean that a sufficient people will see ‘what we have lost’ and this will lead to political pressure for the United Kingdom to quickly rejoin the European Union.
This approach may work – one lesson from the last five years is just how quickly politics can change, and in any direction.
For the following three reasons, this blog submits that such an approach is misconceived and avers that a different approach should be adopted by those who want the United Kingdom to be a successful applicant for membership of the European Union.
The first reason is that the emphasis on the ‘re-‘ in ‘rejoining’ – especially if that is based on relying on the adverse consequences of departure – is not a positive case for membership.
There needs to be more than the simple application of the pleasure-pain principle.
One feature of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was that since at least the completion of the single market in 1992 there was never a positive case made for membership in frontline politics.
Instead, the two biggest political parties competed with each other as to which was the one that secured the more opt-outs, whether it be the Euro, the social chapter, free movement of peoples, justice and home affairs, or so on.
The case, if any, for the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was that it was ‘less bad’ than any alternative.
This scepticism and often outright hostility was also a feature of much of the news reporting of the same period – and such was the lack of popular understanding of the role and nature of the European Union that it was easily made to blame for things for which it was not responsible.
And after twenty-five or so years of such negativity, it was perhaps more surprising that the 2016 referendum was so close than that the remain side lost.
It was not so much that the leave side won the 2016 referendum that the remain side lost.
This mistake should not be repeated.
The case for European Union should be a positive one – and that means that it should be a case based on the advantages that membership of the European Union will have for the United Kingdom.
What would be the benefits of membership of the European Union, which could not be attained in any other way?
For, as this blog was previously contended, those in favour of membership have a challenge.
Can you, for example, make out the case for the United Kingdom joining the European Union without reference to the fact that the United Kingdom was a member?
If a compelling case cannot be made for the United Kingdom in the here-and-now to become a member of the European Union then it is difficult, if not impossible. to see how sufficient political support can be achieved for a viable application for membership.
The second reason is the United Kingdom is highly unlikely be able to ‘rejoin’ quickly.
The notion that somehow the European Union will gladly accept a United Kingdom quickly bouncing back and pretending nothing had changed is a fantasy.
Indeed, it is just a new variant form of British (or English) exceptionalism.
The new trade and cooperation agreement is structured for the medium to longer-term.
As I set out in this new Financial Times video, the agreement is a ‘broad…framework’ for discrete supplementary agreements over time, with any more significant shifts (either in the the direction of closeness or otherwise) being on a five-year review cycle.
And this accords with the five-year cycle on which the European Union conducts its own business.
We can no longer snap our fingers and demand immediate attention, loudly and in English.
The United Kingdom is now on the outside, looking in.
And as this blog has previously averred, the European Union will understandably want to take time to see if the internal politics of the United Kingdom have settled down in favour of membership of the European Union.
The European Union will not want to let the United Kingdom back in only to have to devote time and effort in dealing with another Brexit, like some geo-political Groundhog Day.
The European Union will also want to see what happens to the United Kingdom itself over the next few years: Irish unification? Scottish (or even Welsh) independence?
What will be the situation of the European Union and of the world in 2026? 2031?
Therefore there not only needs to be a positive case for United Kingdom membership of the European Union, it has to be a sustainable case too.
The third reason is that an emphasis on ‘rejoin’ and ‘reversing Brexit’ carries a real risk of campaigners eternally refighting the 2016 referendum.
Like some historical re-enactment society, but for the battle of Brexit rather than the battle of Naseby.
Of course, remainers are right to have grievances about the circumstances of the referendum and the conduct of the campaign(s) for leave.
Remainers also are right to complain about the process (or lack of process) that followed the referendum and which has resulted in the United Kingdom ceasing first to be a member of the European Union and then having the protection of the transition arrangements.
Nothing in this post should be taken to mean that that the politicians who have made serious misjudgments about law and policy should not be held to account – indeed that is one purpose of this blog.
But pointing out problems and failings, either now or back in 2016, is not going to lead to the United Kingdom becoming (again) a member of the European Union.
This is not only because it is difficult to get a sufficient number of voters engaged, and that government supporters and Brexiters are so deft at evasion and misdirection.
It is because there is a fundamental disconnect between problem and solution.
Whether the United Kingdom becomes (again) a member of the European Union in 2026 – or whenever – will not be a logical consequence of redressing the wrongs and of 2016 or even those emerging in 2021.
Membership of the European Union may be a prize, but it will not be a consolation prize.
The task ahead for those in favour of the United Kingdom (again) becoming a member of the European Union is immense.
A positive case has to be made over time so that the European Union will seriously consider a fresh application.
But that is not an impossible task.
And at least, unlike the supposedly ‘pro-European’ politicians of the last thirty or forty years, this will be a positive case.
One problem with the politics of the United Kingdom in recent decades is that the positive case for membership of the European Union was rarely made.
Now is the opportunity for that to be put right.
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