This tweet of mine drew quite a lot of critique – why are you so sceptical, people asked. There is a pro-EU majority in the UK now. When Brexit really happens (i.e. when the transition period is over) people will see the damage that was done, and the UK can rejoin.
It’s not so simple.
First the transition period. If the UK is determined to not extend it beyond the end of 2020, Johnson’s government is going to have to largely capitulate to the EU’s demands. The UK does not know what it wants from Brexit, nor how to get it. So a quick deal will mean the EU – that knows what it wants – will get what it wants. And that will mean a close-ish relationship between the UK and the EU. “See, it wasn’t so bad after all!” will be the refrain. The relentless push from the commentariat to get Remain people to accept Brexit, to accept a soft-ish variant of it, will be repeated over and over.
If instead the UK actually realises it needs more time to negotiate something that might actually be closer to what the Tory hardliners want, that postpones the impact of Brexit. The real changes then end up being at the end of 2021 or 2022. It lets the country down slowly.
If there is the danger of a crash-out still, the anger that drives Rejoiners will persist. Otherwise it will begin to dissipate. There will be grumbles, sure. But it will be hard to channel these constructively.
The second point is about organisation, and how to channel the pro-EU sentiment there is in the UK. One of the central reasons Brexit eventually came to happen at the end of the past three years was because of a lack of organisational coherence on the Remain side. There were too many organisations (Open Britain, Best for Britain etc.) and political parties that couldn’t make up their minds where they stood with regard to the EU question. Even if Starmer wins the Labour leadership (forget it if Nandy or Long Bailey do) there is no viable prospect that Labour will commit itself resolutely to Rejoin. It will prevaricate and try to talk about other issues, and the Rejoin effort will still be stuck where Remain was – with latent popular support, but without any clear leadership or direction.
The third reason is about responsibility, and the UK’s ability to reflect or not. The next stage of the Brexit negotiations – about the future trade relationship – are in danger of going very badly because the UK does not know what it wants. But the UK government, and its media cheerleaders, are going to land the blame squarely with the EU who “refused to give the UK a good deal”. The UK, you see, shall not be responsible for the predicament it created for itself. “Why would we rejoin a union that treated us so badly in the negotiations?” will be the critique used against Rejoin campaigners.
Fourth, will there even be a UK able to rejoin the EU anyway? With pro-independence sentiment bubbling up in Scotland, and with a special status for Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement, there is at least a chance that one or more of the component parts of the UK will have left that union before the UK can Rejoin the EU. Brexit, after all, is an English problem rather than a British problem, and solutions to England’s identity issues and superiority complex are not going to be swift.
Fifth, the EU is going to be reluctant to let the UK back on the same terms it had until now – the UK would have to broach both the Schengen and the Euro issue. Plus the rest of the EU has grown tired of the UK’s destructive tactics over the years – there will be some voices even not wanting the UK back.
Sixth, while I do not doubt the EU will exist long into the future, it is also not a project shiny with optimism just now. Poor quality leadership, the fracturing of traditional alliances that make political progress complicated, the rise in populism and challenges to the rule of law in a slew of Member States… Good luck making the case for that in the UK – not to the Remain crowd, but towards those who would need to change their minds.
So there you have it. 6 reasons for my scepticism – how the transition period will go, the lack of organisational coherence for Rejoin, the UK’s inability to reflect, the question of if there will even be a UK in the future, the problem of rejoin terms, and the inherent issues the EU faces.
I am happy to be proven wrong. But for now I am sceptical!