The rejoin campaign in Britain seems to be gathering steam, but where exactly is it going? If the answer seems obvious, it is much less so when you think about it.
Of course, most Britons want to rejoin the EU: most never wanted to leave in the first place, so the 37% who voted to leave did so mostly because they were misinformed. Many are now waking up to the nasty feeling they were duped, while leading Brexiteers are comfortably installed in their farmhouses in the Dordogne, villas in the Baleares or chalets in the Alps. Margate may be charming, but…
Fantasy may have allowed the Brexit campaign to succeed in its aims, but fantasy won’t get Britain back into the EU. A dose of reality is now needed.
The first aim of the re-join campaign should be to ask for EU candidate status. But rejoiners need also to ponder the Brussels perspective. The EU has moved on since the shock of Brexit in 2016 – more than seven years ago – and it is the UK’s actual departure in February 2020. Will the European Council regard UK re-entry as further strengthening the union? What will the UK bring to Brussels as Europe now looks to its east and south and prospective new entrants from the western Balkans in the short term and Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the longer term?
The UK first asked to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961 and was more than a bit miffed that de Gaulle vetoed it. Many in the Anglo-sphere dismissed his action as typical French petulance, but while de Gaulle could indeed be petulant at times (rather as Boris Johnson is known to be), in jumping to that conclusion, they missed the point badly.
De Gaulle had good reason to veto the UK’s entry: he had spent the war years in England and had come to know the English, so understood their deep-rooted ambivalence to Europe. He saw that, were they to join the European project, they would never really subscribe to it and would thus cause only problems. He was spot on: once in the EEC, the UK incessantly demanded concessions, including later opt outs from labour protections, the euro and others and, of course, there was the famous ‘rebate’ insisted on by the fiercely pro-EC Margaret Thatcher. De Gaulle also could see that the UK would be a side door conduit for American influence within the bloc, which is indeed what is ‘special’ about their relationship with the UK and which de Gaulle regarded with some suspicion.
Many in European capitals recalled his prescience when they read their news feeds on 24 June, 2016. Some remarked that “De Gaulle was right, should ever have let them in the first place!”, others were more philosophical: “Well, they were always one foot in and one foot out. Now it’s the other way around.”
Some credited Britain for its free-market influence on EU policy in things like international trade and competition in domestic market. Perhaps, but the EU has stuck to its free trading guns since the UK’s departure and now arguably boasts better free-market credentials than does the UK.
What is unambiguous is the UK’s contribution to euro scepticism in the EU Parliament. In 2019, 45 of the 750 MEPs represented parties citing hard euro scepticism as one of their ideologies. Of those, 19 of the UK’s 21 MEPs represented UKIP, unique in the European Parliament at the time, in that hard euro scepticism was the party’s primary, rather than a minor ideology. By contrast, in the current European parliament, euro scepticism is hard to find and no party cites it as their main ideology.
Since February, 2020, when the UK effectively left the EU, the EU has moved on in important ways. Crisis continues to be the catalyst for progress in the European project, but a step-change seems to have occurred, first in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the war in Ukraine. Despite lacking the powers delegated from member states to take charge of the pandemic response and a hesitant start, the EU quickly formed the machinery to procure and distribute protective equipment and testing kits, while begetting an effective, cost effective vaccine in record time.
More importantly, it demonstrated clearly the potential of concerted, collective action that permitted collective funding of a giant recovery plan. It has also paved the way for new thinking about collective defence – a subject that was taboo until Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine – and still unpopular in Washington.
It is hard to imagine these levels of cooperation and collective action with the UK as an influential EU member state, most of whose MEPs were diametrically opposed to any kind of collective action, preferring to see the EU as primarily a free trade zone.
Were the UK granted candidate status, its re-accession may not be straightforward. No opt outs or rebates would be on offer, for example, and any demand for them would likely meet vigorous resistance. In practice, this means complying with all EU laws and directives, including those governing labour provisions and the UK would have to promise to join the Euro, thus make meaningful progress in aligning its economy with the Euro zone in preparation.
The Americans might like the idea, but their influence in EU affairs sits awkwardly with the aim of strategic autonomy.
Even if all this could be achieved, would British voters accept those terms? Until European leaders are convinced that the UK will genuinely commit to the European political project and not just try to cherry pick the benefits, re-accession may remain forever out of reach. This is not the conversation you hear in the UK right now, but it’s the conversation that needs to happen.