Could Britain rejoin the EU?
Yes, but it will be tremendously, enormously, difficult. That’s no reason to not try but it’s important to recognise the scale of the challenge ahead. From time to time, some politicians and pundits will talk about how easy it all will be, until they move on to their next grift.
Bold, coherent action would be needed to create a mass, popular, pro-European movement. The events before, during, and, after the referendum, are not promising that this will happen. There is little indication that any Rejoin campaign is serious or determined enough to do what is necessary to win.
But amid the insular and increasingly intolerant backdrop of post-Brexit Britain, there’s an opportunity for progressives to set out the alternative of what kind of country Britain could have been instead, and still could be if people choose it. This isn’t just about tactics and strategy, what exactly it means to be European and British will have to be examined too.
Here are five fundamental problems any Rejoin campaign will have to look at.
1. Learn from your opponents and from your own mistakes
The lack of a postmortem into the failure of the Remain campaign, and the preceding years in which support for the EU seriously eroded, is remarkably negligent. Perhaps the only advantage of defeat is the freedom to look, with complete openness, at why and how you lost. It’s not just an opportunity, but it’s a responsibility; to understand the reasons for a defeat, and the greater the defeat and the greater the cause, the greater the responsibility.
Blaming people’s stupidity or racism, or Russian Twitter bots or Facebook data (and there are legitimate grievances there) may make people feel better but people shouldn’t try and feel better by accepting easy answers for the complete failure of the British pro-EU side to make their case not just during the referendum but for years beforehand.
Plus as stupidity, racism, Russian Twitter bots, and Facebook data, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, Rejoiners need to think about how to win despite those things. It will never be a fair fight.
It’s no use blaming Jeremy Corbyn either. He was one of the most prolific campaigners during the campaign and he was one of the few politicians to actually connect with the public. The ‘seven-out-of-ten’ he gave to being in favour of the EU was derided by some but was one of the few arguments from the Remain campaign to actually connect with swing voters. If you want to blame Corbyn but aren’t willing to look at Alan Johnson (the head of the Remain campaign) and the Remain campaign as a whole, you aren’t looking at why Remain lost, you just don’t like Jeremy Corbyn.
When I saw an event with a joint appearance by David Cameron and Sadiq Khan, I thought to myself, what type of voters is this supposed to appeal to? The establishment was in favour of staying in the EU but why did anyone think that that would be a successful argument with discontent, distrust, and economic inequality at an all-time high?
Ultimately, Remain couldn’t say to people, stay in the EU and your lives will get better, whereas Leave could say that. It was a lie but it worked.
Rejoiners can console themselves that no-one will ever take Britain’s membership of the EU for granted again and that Britain changed to some degree the night of the referendum. The Remain and Leave we talk about came, in large part, into being in the weeks following the referendum not before it.
But Rejoin will have to make the argument that it failed to do during the referendum: How will people’s lives get better because the UK rejoins the EU? Shorter queuing times at passport controls won’t cut it - what about in the towns where the only jobs are in the local supermarket? What will the EU do for them?
Perhaps the bitterest pill for Rejoiners will be to look at how Brexiteers won. A few years ago they were a belittled political fringe in the Conservative party and UKIP. They went on to get a referendum which they won, they took over the Conservative Party, won a general election and No 10, and got Brexit over the line.
They were committed, unapologetic, uncompromising and ruthless. For years Brexiteers had the field to themselves, attacking the EU and immigration. The defenders of the EU were nowhere. Too few politicians were willing to defend the EU or immigration and too many were willing for the EU to take the blame on issues that the EU had little if anything to do with. It wasn’t just Tory MPs as well it was liberals and Labour centrists as well.
British membership of the EU will have to be promoted alongside a proposal for a dramatic overhaul of how our society is organised with a dramatic change in the direction it has been going in for the last 40 years of neoliberalism. The slogans of liberals and centrists won’t be enough and not just because they’re not very good slogans (which they are not) but because no-one believes them anymore.
The politicians and pundits who talked so passionately about Britain and its place in the EU have now become remarkably mute on the subject or are far more restrained in their advocacy - stating perhaps 2024 or 2030 will be the right time to start campaigning for readmission to the EU, if they saying anything at all. Rejoiners gain nothing by placing their faith in these charlatans.
There is no right time to start arguing for what you believe in. Brexiteers didn’t listen to those who said they were being unrealistic. Rejoiners shouldn’t either.
2. A mass, democratic movement, or bureaucratic trickery?
How should Britain rejoin the EU? After another referendum or just a vote in parliament? Over the next decade at times, it will be tempting for Rejoiners to look at the simplest, quickest way - a vote in parliament to enter negotiations with the EU and another parliamentary vote to finalise it. This may be tempting but it will be lethal to the hopes of any Rejoiner campaign.
To quote Terry Pratchett, the hard way is hard, but the easy way is harder.
There’s no way Britain will rejoin the EU without mass public support. So many of the politicians who were so open to, even passionate of, the people’s vote campaign, were willing to hold another vote, but they don’t have the stomach for the long, hard fight that Rejoin will need to undertake. They’ll have to be forced into it by millions of determined voters.
If the Rejoin campaign is ever seriously seen to be considering undemocratic means of rejoining the EU, it has lost before it has even begun.
There are no shortcuts, just a long, grueling campaign. You can build a mass movement or you can hope to convince some MPs but you can't do both.
3. Building a pro-EU Coalition
How do you get to 50%+1 of the population? We will hear a lot about demographics, about how old Leavers are dying off and young Rejoiners are coming to voting age. Nothing needs to be done, just sit back, enjoy a latte and count down the days.
Demographic change may be inevitable but the expectations people put on it are anything but. This will have to be won. People’s minds will need changing.
A Rejoin campaign will need liberals, centrists, socialists and some conservatives. It is hard to see how such a coalition could be formed.
Pro-EU conservatives have been purged from the party. They barely exist anymore, certainly not as MPs. Brexiteers didn’t just win the referendum, they took over the Conservative Party.
The People’s Vote campaign and Labour’s eventual embrace of it, put an end to the Corbyn project - the Left’s first chance in decades of a serious chance at winning power. Labour’s commitment to a second referendum was named as the number one reason 2017 Labour voters abandoned the party.
That so many of the most adamant and vocal Remainers, who pushed so hard and criticised Corbyn so vehemently, have now gone completely silent on the subject, I think confirms the view that it wasn’t a principled stand but an utterly cynical attempt to damage Corbyn and Labour’s election prospects.
Some on the Left said how it was more important for Corbyn to win than to stay in the EU but more thought both were compatible. Following Labour’s brutal 2019 defeat, many on the Left will not seriously consider working on any Rejoin campaign or with the liberals and centrists who disparage them on every possible occasion.
I have no answers here. It’s a problem. Perhaps too big a problem for Rejoin to overcome.
A coalition will have to be a real coalition with compromises from all sides. I’ll believe it when I see it.
4. Re-entry negotiations
Britain leaving the EU was a painful, excruciating process, and there’s no reason to think rejoining won’t be just as excruciating.
The nitty-gritty of Britain rejoining the EU is not only important in its own right but it will inevitably be a part of any referendum debate. What should Britain’s red lines be?
Will Britain retain its own currency? Will Britain have vetoes in certain policy-making areas? What exceptions to EU agreements can it expect?
As a member of the EU, the UK had more opt-outs, vetoes and special deals than any other member. There is no reason to think that they will be there if Britain rejoins.
The EU and member states undoubtedly regret Britain’s departure but perhaps they are relieved that the whole episode is finally over. Problems like the economy, the Euro, and global warming can now be focused on, rather than the Brexit sideshow, and perhaps further EU integration that Britain so often opposed will be implemented. The EU may be reluctant to reopen the Brexit nightmare, especially if Britain is divided down the middle.
The EU that Britain may hope to rejoin may look very different to the EU Britain voted to leave.
Every member state will have a veto on Britain rejoining the EU. Negotiations will be tough and every concession Britain is forced into, could make passing a final referendum tougher.
I think a British government getting elected on a mandate of starting re-entry negotiations with the eventual deal going to a referendum is the most workable plan that will give the British negotiating team some leverage ('We would like to concede on this but we do need to sell the deal…'). The alternative, of a referendum taking place before negotiations, will be easier to attack, i.e. the British negotiators will give up everything and the people won't get another say. The third option will be two referenda - one before and one after negotiations. You can imagine the collective national groan at such a prospect.
Of course, now we are out of the EU, rejoining is not within our gift. An election could be won, a referendum could be won, and the EU could say no thanks. Rejoiners will have to accept that.
5. What kind of EU and Britain do Rejoiners want?
The big questions need to be asked and Rejoiners need to have answers. What is the European Union?
It’s a hell of a question and one Remain never successfully answered during the campaign. Is it a free-trade association of nation-states or is it something more than that?
It has to be about more than short queues at the airport or the chance for middle-class kids to work in 27 other countries. And saying it will be good for jobs and the economy means precious little to those who have no jobs or bad jobs and who think all the jobs and economy talk doesn’t apply to them.
I think the Remain campaign was never willing to accept that were, and are, serious problems with the EU. It’s undemocratic, it’s bureaucratic and it’s never been a project based on mass popular support — which it needs to be. Those problems aren’t going anywhere. Well-intentioned reform of the EU can be part of the Rejoin campaign.
Rejoiners will have to argue that the EU is somewhat limited in what it can do, it isn’t a panacea for Britain’s problems but neither is not being a member of it.
Rejoiners need to say that if people want change in Britain, they should look at Westminster but it will be easier for Britain to implement that change if it is a member of the EU.
The case for rejoining the EU needs to be coherent and unashamed. Issues like a humane and open immigration policy, too often abandoned by progressives, will need to be fought for as well. If Rejoiners can't win on immigration, can they win on rejoining the EU?
Change is inevitable. It is also an excruciatingly difficult thing to achieve. Some people spend their whole lives fighting for it and having nothing to show but worn-out hands and hopes.
There are no experts in politics and listening to the politicians and pundits, revealed as grafters and charlatans that spoke so knowingly before, during, and after the Brexit vote, of what needs to be done to keep Britain in the EU, will get Rejoiners precisely nowhere.
The 2016 referendum created an awareness of something we didn’t really think about too much beforehand. A European Britain, both of Europeans who have made Britain their home and of Britons who consider themselves European. Many in the latter group didn’t know what they were until it was taken away from them. A number of Britons now would say they were European as much, or even more than, they were British. These people aren’t going anywhere. Especially now we don’t have free movement.
A crucial decision for the Rejoin campaign will be how ‘European’ they argue Britain should be. Are we a sovereign nation joining a community of nations or, is it more of a shared sovereignty? This is a tougher choice than it may at first appear. Perhaps Britain needs to change fundamentally to be part of the EU. Maybe this argument needs to be had and won - that we see ourselves as EU citizens as much, or even more than, British citizens.
Rejoiners can listen to those who say, bide your time. But there’s never a right time, it’s never convenient, it’s never easy. The right time to fight for the future you want is always now.