These should be heady times for the UK’s pro-Europeans. Opinion polls now show clear and consistent expressions of regret that the country left the EU. Some even suggest a majority for rejoining. Leavers have all but given up arguing its merits, falling back on the old chestnut that “true Brexit hasn’t really been tried”. The dam is breached. Surely then, it is only a matter of time before the campaign to rectify this historic error begins in earnest.
And yet, with the exception of the SNP in Scotland, none of the major opposition parties show the courage of their former convictions. At the coming party conferences it will occupy less debate than car taxes. While some Labour voters like to imagine returning to the single market as a second term agenda for a triumphantly re-elected Keir Starmer, the unhappy truth for Britain’s pro-Europeans is that a meaningful return to the EU orbit is decades away at best. For Remainers in UK-wide parties the talk is of improved relations, a better trade deal, perhaps the creation of a regular EU-UK summit, youth visas and incremental regulatory alignment — not one of the world’s great rallying cries. In as far as Brexit will be an election issue, the debate is over how to make it work.
Rejoining the single market or customs union is outside the mainstream agenda. As for full membership, even dedicated pro-Europeans like Tony Blair see this as generations away.
The caution is justified. First, the polls cannot be trusted. Many of the most dramatic poll leads for rejoin have excluded don’t knows, who account for up to 20 per cent of voters. There remains a large gap between those expressing regret and those ready to rejoin. Above all, a five-second answer to a policy question is a poor guide to what may happen once the choice becomes live. Many who feel regret are also queasy about reopening the most divisive chapter in modern British history. The other clue is the level of continuing support for Brexit among Conservative voters — the very people the opposition parties wish to win over.
There are several reasons why Rejoiners should steel themselves for a very long haul. First, it would require another referendum, and while the polls and demographics give grounds for hope, once a campaign gets into the specifics their case would be more difficult. Rejoining would mean a commitment to abolish the pound and give up independent immigration controls. There will be no UK opt-outs this time. These are not easy arguments to make. Furthermore, the EU’s drift towards closer integration will continue.
Returning to the single market or customs union might not require a referendum and is seen by many as an achievable halfway house. But even this will require becoming a rule-taker. Closer regulatory alignment carries the same problem, though it is one many exporters would be pleased to tolerate.
Secondly, the efforts to improve the existing Brexit settlement, repair relations and ease trade friction may reduce the imperative for rejoining. If Brexit can be made bearable, why go through the pain of unpicking it? The Tories are likely to remain a Brexit party, though perhaps a more pragmatic one, and they will not be out of power indefinitely.
Someway down the line it is possible to imagine a future outer ring of associate EU members, offered some economic advantages but without full benefits or a political voice. This could be easier for British politicians to sell even though it would place the UK in Europe’s second tier.
But the two biggest problems lie beyond UK control. It is far from clear that the EU will want the UK back as a full member, especially if it can extend its writ through regulatory alignment, the single market or some new associate role. Tory leaders are already beginning to accept some EU regulatory hegemony. The EU is coping without its recalcitrant ex-member.
Finally, even if a moment comes when the EU is ready to readmit the UK, it might reasonably demand a higher than 50 per cent threshold for public support — say two-thirds — as the price of re-entry, to ensure the end of the UK’s political hokey-cokey.
There will be no rapid return. Those dreaming of only a decade in the wilderness are unlikely to be right. A disastrous economic downturn might speed UK readiness but that is hardly a thing to be wished for.
None of this is to say that Rejoiners are wrong to campaign on Brexit’s failings. They will need to create sufficient pro-Europeanism for voters to set aside worries over immigration and the loss of monetary autonomy that comes with joining the euro. But there does need to be realism in this approach, which avoids blaming every economic woe on Brexit when other issues such as Covid, the Ukraine conflict or a decade of under-investment are more relevant. In this case, Brexit is more like a comorbidity, weakening the UK’s ability to rise above larger crises by slowing growth and business investment.
They must avoid repeating the mistake of the second referendum campaign when an absolutist stance prevented unity around a compromise. Incremental changes to make Brexit more bearable should not be sneered at but banked as wins, normalising the direction of closer ties.
Above all they need to learn from their opponents. Brexit was a 30-year campaign. Rejoiners are right to start the fight but in their impatience they need to recognise just how long and hard a journey it is likely to be.