The future of the left since 1884


British pro-Europeans can feel confident that the UK will seek to return to the EU at some point in the future. But it is less likely we’ll see the political leadership required to make the UK’s second stay in the EU more stable, argues Stephen Bush.



It is a little past midnight on Thursday 3 June 2032. Newcastle is the first counting area to declare, and the result is overwhelming: by 40 points, the people of Newcastle have voted to rejoin the European Union. Minutes later, Sunderland follows suit, by a smaller but still crushing majority, with ‘rejoin’ triumphing over ‘remain’ (out of the EU) by 15 points.

“An old dawn has broken, has it not?” a 79-year-old Tony Blair triumphantly tweets. By the early hours of Friday, it is clear: the people of the United Kingdom of England and Wales (UKEW) have voted by an overwhelming margin to become the European Union’s 35th member. The value of sterling climbs to a decade high of 59 cents to a pound while, on the Scottish border, residents of the border towns dance outside checkpoints separating England from its neighbour. Property prices along the border shoot up in anticipation of the trading bonanza that is expected to arrive once the two nations are once again in the same market and customs area. The first European country to welcome UKEW back into the fold is not Scotland but Ireland, though analysts suggest that the Taoiseach’s real agenda is to guarantee English support in the coming talks with unionist paramilitaries.

Although many of the bloc’s creditor nations are reluctant to add another net recipient to the EU, after UKEW agrees to a series of tough financial promises to balance the books and get the country’s pension liabilities under control, UKEW is welcomed back if not with open arms but with at least a warm handshake. On 1 January 2034, the United Kingdom of England and Wales is welcomed back into the European Union.

Farfetched? The circumstances – and the scale of the endorsement for re-joining the European Union – are deliberately provocative. Prediction is a mug’s game, but the odds that British public opinion will shift in favour of remaining in the European Union – if, indeed, it hasn’t already – are extremely high. The Brexit vote was driven not by economics but, in the main, by culture – and the cultural mores that inclined people towards a remain vote are more widely represented among the young than the old. Pro-remain politicians and celebrities should stop talking about the fact that most Brexit voters will be dead soon, because it is highly unattractive and extremely counterproductive. But it is, nonetheless, true that anyone who wants us to rejoin the European Union can, in the long term, get away with their highly unattractive language about leave voters, their embarrassing hashtags and their sub-par leadership, because time is on pro-Europeans’ side. Tomorrow belongs to them, no matter how little they do to deserve it.

It is the Brexiteers who must desperately remove the taint of culture war from Britain’s leave vote if the United Kingdom’s time out of the European Union is to be anything other than a ten-year proposition. It could be that once Brexit is secured, enough of the leave establishment will be able to turn its mind to winning over remainers to futureproof Brexit – but it doesn’t feel particularly likely.

No amount of careful wooing of public opinion can change the fundamental challenges of Brexit, all of which make it more likely than not that support for leaving the European Union will decline, rather than rise.

The 2016 referendum was, at its core, a decision about how best to maximise British sovereignty. British voters opted, albeit by a narrow margin, to choose political freedom over economic freedom. Of course, as the left has always known, the freedom of the poor is a pretty poor version of freedom: yes, you have more theoretical freedom, but you can’t take advantage of it when you’re broke.

The biggest long-run force working against Brexit is that voters in general – whether they backed remain, leave, or simply stayed at home in 2016 – are always less willing to absorb economic losses than they think they are. Voters re-elected a Conservative government promising £12bn worth of welfare cuts in 2015, and immediately revolted when that government actually tried to make anything close to £12bn worth of welfare cuts. The economic costs of Brexit will be no different. A soft Brexit which does not maximise British sovereignity but instead maintains the current rate of trade might be more politically enduring outside Westminster, but it lacks sufficient support in parliament. The only available political exit, as long as the Conservatives are in office, will be a hard one. And that Brexit will be no more popular than cuts to tax credits were.

That the bulk of the Labour party membership continue to be pro-European and select pro-Europeans in parliamentary constituencies means that, if there is a Labour government (whether in majority or some form of coalition) again, the chances are high that, at the least, a significant chunk of backbenchers will want to re-open the question. And if public opinion moves, other Labour politicians won’t want to stand in the way.

So the bigger question is not “could British voters decide they are better off inside the European Union?” but: what will the European Union look like? Will be it an organisation that wants the United Kingdom in it? What might a stable and sustainable British membership look like? And will the European Union even survive?

Let’s take that last question first: will the European Union still be around in 20 or 30 years? Don’t forget that the United Kingdom is by no means the only European nation to have seen political upheaval and crisis over the last decade, and the problems all have the same roots: the global financial crisis and the migrant crisis, both of which have destabilised European politics. The movement of people from the global south to Europe has been driven by a variety of forces: political collapse and war caused by the Arab Spring and economic migration caused by climate change. But it has already caused significant increases in support for the nativist right across the continent and was a factor behind the United Kingdom’s leave vote. It also helped boost support for the far right in Germany, Austria and Italy.

The bad news is that the movement of people before the referendum is nothing compared to the far bigger movements that will be triggered by the Earth’s changing climate. There is no compelling reason to suppose that the European Union will survive a greater and deeper migrant crisis.

That’s the worst case scenario. The good news is that there is little point worrying about it. If it happens, the result, both in terms of what it means for the rest of the European Union and for the United Kingdom – whatever shape it may be – is too bad to ameliorate.

Let’s instead look at a future where the European Union survives. What might re-entry look like in that world? The European Union will of course continue to grow and change after Brexit and its evolution will be different because of the departure of the United Kingdom. So what might the European Union come to look like?

One of the significant differences is that all of the bloc’s power players, by any metric you care to name (significance of contribution to the EU’s budget, number of votes held via qualified majority voting, presence in the bureaucratic structures of the bloc), will all be members of the Eurozone. One of the pressures exerted on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was that neither British politics nor economics made it achievable or desirable for the country to be a member of the Euro. But outside the single currency, the United Kingdom was an increasingly less significant player in the internal politics of the bloc.

Much was made during the referendum campaign of the idea that the United Kingdom had been sold a false bill of goods: a common market, not a federal project. The truth is that the European project was always a political project as well as an economic one, and was clearly advertised as such when the United Kingdom joined. The real false promise was that membership of the European Community would allow the United Kingdom to regain its status as a power player on the world stage. While it was a German politician – Konrad Adenauer – speaking to a French one – his opposite number Guy Mollet – who said that “Europe will be our revenge” against the rising power of the United States, it was a line believed by British politicians more than anyone else.

But the United Kingdom is not a power player on the world stage, though it has been one within the European Union. Staying outside the Eurozone didn’t end that but it did reduce it. Any union the United Kingdom rejoined would be one in which the Eurozone was still more influential and the countries outside the monetary union less so. That would be doubly the case for Britain if it maintained its Cameron-era position of being not only outside the monetary union but being the only member state not to opt in to at least some of the Eurozone-wide measures.

It is unlikely that Emmanuel Macron’s proposals will ever be implemented in full. It requires not only for him to remain in office, but to be blessed with a German Chancellor and a Dutch Prime Minister who are not only sympathetic to his reforms but have the political strength to deliver them at home, which is almost certainly not going to happen. If they did, the United Kingdom would be re-joining the bloc in a subordinate position. The false promise of the 1970s, that the United Kingdom could keep its great power pretensions through the European Community, would have to be faced off once and for all.

The same would be true for the United Kingdom’s prized opt-outs. As it stands, the reality is that the United Kingdom is already less special than its political class likes to pretend. Yes, the United Kingdom has more opt-outs – four – than any other member state. It has an opt-out from joining the European single currency, from being part of the Schengen Agreement, on security and justice measures, and on aspects of the Charter of Fundamental rights. But it shares all of its opt-outs with another member state: Denmark in the case of the single currency, defence and security matters, Ireland over Schengen, and Poland over the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Its opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights means very little in practice and its opt-out from joining the single currency means even less. Most countries that are not already in the Eurozone are joining it only in the same sense that Turkey is joining the European Union: it will happen shortly after the heat death of the universe.

As for security, the United Kingdom’s opt-outs are weaker than Denmark’s and are more significant for past measures than they will be to future ones.

What about Schengen? Well, in practice, entering Schengen would be an unalloyed positive for the United Kingdom: as an island nation the country would still have considerable protections of its borders but it would open up the possibility of train travel across the continent that extended beyond London and into the country’s other great cities. But crucially, what guarantees the UK’s Schengen opt-out is that Ireland, which shares a land border with the UK, currently has one too.

But, frankly, the United Kingdom would be better off economically within Schengen and it will only be able to become a stable member of the European Union when its political class has the stomach to argue that. It will also require an acceptance that the United Kingdom will be a less significant member of the bloc than it was on 23 June 2016. And on current evidence, anyone hoping for that will be in for a long wait.

But, despite that, British pro-Europeans can feel comfortable in expecting that the United Kingdom will seek to return to the bloc at some point in the future. The economic imperative won’t change and in the long term, economic pressures triumph over political forces. But the political leadership required to make the United Kingdom’s second stay within the European Union more stable and enduring than the first looks likely to remain in short supply.

This essay is taken from Beyond Brexit, a new Fabian Society/FEPS report. Read it here.

Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman.


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