For the past three years, the British ‘Remain’ cause lived one day at a time, constantly concentrating on winning a new Brexit delay until a second referendum would be possible. As the clocks strike 11 on Friday night, passionate Remainers will transform into ‘Rejoiners’. At the same time, the mode of campaigning will change dramatically. If the Remain campaign was akin to the beep test you did in high school gym class, the campaign to rejoin will rather feel like a marathon. In this piece, Juuso Järviniemi reverse-engineers the UK’s path back into the EU.
The expected awfulness of Brexit and, above all, the young generation’s pro-European attitudes make ‘Rejoin’ a seemingly inevitable scenario in the long run. Nothing in politics happens by itself, however. Like any other country, the UK will need to go through 35 ‘chapters’ of accession negotiations, intended to ascertain that the UK conforms to the EU’s laws and values. While the process will presumably be easier for the UK, a country that has been implementing European law for nearly fifty years, the negotiations won’t happen at the snap of a finger.
Moreover, the UK couldn’t get back the deal it had at the moment of departure. In his blog on the LSE website, Anthony Salamone lists opt-outs the UK would struggle to win back, including non-membership of the Schengen Area and of the Eurozone. Salamone also points out that the UK would hardly be let back in before British public opinion is stably in favour of membership.
A new quest to convince Labour
For the negotiations to begin, the UK thus needs a government willing to apply for membership, even in the knowledge that being ‘in the EU, but half out’ will hardly be an option. Unless the Conservatives experience a monumental change of heart, or the Liberal Democrats miraculously win an election, the Prime Minister in this government is likely to come from Labour.
The Rejoin scenario, in other words, requires a Labour leader who goes into an election pledging to apply for membership, and manages to beat the Conservatives. Alternatively, if this future Labour leader is a fan of British humour, they might also pledge to hold a referendum on rejoining the EU, and put the promise on the side of a big red campaign bus!
In all seriousness, though, a referendum at one point or another might be necessary to legitimise the decision to rejoin. The prospect of Scottish independence further complicates matters: in the 2019 election, the Conservatives beat Labour in England and Wales by a whopping 158 seats. Especially if Scotland’s pro-European, anti-Tory electorate is wiped out of the map, a major shift in British politics is needed for Rejoin to be a credible option.
Apart from the Scottish National Party who endorse ‘independence in Europe’, the Liberal Democrats seem set to be the first major party to back Rejoin. This January, the newcomer Lib Dem MEP Luisa Porritt tweeted wondering if she might already be back at her Brussels desk in ten years.
Ten years seems overly optimistic, given the magnitude of the change required and the time that the accession process will take. However, the spirit of the tweet is correct: there will be a constituency for a party that consistently keeps Rejoin on the agenda, until Labour as the larger party agrees to embrace the proposal. Those who have followed UKIP’s relationship to the Conservatives over the years will be familiar with the pattern.
So far, Labour is still far from advocating Rejoin. In the ongoing leadership contest, Jess Phillips – a contender eliminated early on – was the only one briefly flirting with the notion, while centrist pro-Europeans’ best hope Keir Starmer has flat-out rejected the idea at least for the moment. Just like it took two years of intense grassroots activism for Labour to back a fresh EU referendum, the party needs to be slowly pressured into supporting Rejoin.
The passion starts from the streets
Not only does the new leader need to believe the UK is better off in the EU, but they will also have to channel enough passion to bring others on their side. At present, however, the place to find unwavering and enthusiastic support for the EU is on the streets and in activist Facebook groups, rather than in Westminster.
Even during the intensive campaign for a new EU referendum, the political establishment supporting Remain was more strongly against Brexit than in favour of the EU. In a campaign to Rejoin, the leadership will have to be ‘for’ something, rather than ‘against’ something. For the first time ever – perhaps with the exception of Tony Blair, whose campaign to join the euro would also have required an energetic and positive campaign –, a British leader will have to display genuine, avid support for European integration.
Such a leader won’t emerge unless there is popular demand for a strong pro-EU message. In the next ten, fifteen or twenty years, the grassroots will have to keep their European flags in the air to remind politicians that pro-EU sentiment hasn’t disappeared from the country. At the same time, by maintaining a level of awareness among the British public about how the EU is developing, volunteer groups will help lower the threshold for the UK to rejoin the Union as it is in a decade or two.
Leafletting, blogging and demonstrating every Saturday for fifteen years might not be realistic, but the ‘Rejoin’ presence must remain constant enough to be felt in public discourse. Alas, as soon as the flags go down, mainstream British politicians are disposed to forget that the option of EU membership exists.