The warfare between Brexiters and Remainers is over, except for the echo of an odd distant skirmish. Yet the stragglers being hunted down are not the remnants of the bloodied Remainers, but of the victors, the Brexiters.
Because paradoxically, in winning the referendum, they lost. Winning exposed their delusions as brutally to them as it did to the Remainers, who – as they never stop telling us – knew it would happen. Gore Vidal claimed the most satisfying four words in the English language are: “I told you so.” But there is little satisfaction here for the Europhile warriors. Their sense of loss is visceral. They want retribution. And they want a way back.
A Remain schism?
Their anger has not been assuaged in any way. Brexiters never understood the passion Remainers felt for Europe, and of course didn’t try. The Brexit cause is lost, yet we are left to confront the detritus of its delusions. Bonnie Prince Boris has fled over the water – the Caribbean, possibly – to lick his wounds amid somebody else’s borrowed luxury. So Remainers hold the battleground on which they lost, but have nobody to fight. Except perhaps themselves. We are seeing the beginning of a schism in the Remain camp.
It might be described in several ways. Optimists v pessimists. Pragmatists v idealists perhaps. But the arguments about how to join are sometimes becoming bitter. About when it might be possible, if ever. Whether or not the EU would take us back. Whether or not Labour would allow us to apply again. At its heart though is the realisation that the Rejoiners may be just a loose collection of interests, and in some of those interests lurks the devil which seemed to underpin every Brexit argument – British exceptionalism.
It began with doubts among those who hope for a quick and painless way back, about the intentions of those who seem always to be putting objections in the path of every idea. “What are their motives?” the impatient tendency wonder. Are they really closet Brexiters? And why isn’t the EU coming to our aid?
“The EU clearly don’t give a f*** about people either,” suggests one on Twitter. Another responds: “They hate England and they hate the UK. And they hate British people,” which is pretty damning from somebody who claims he still wants to be a member again. We might ask what for, and why indeed they should come to our aid. To which the answer might come: because we’re exceptional.
But in order to join the EU again, two audiences must be persuaded – the domestic audience and our neighbours in the EU – and they may have quite different agendas. For most of the domestic audience, the first priority is to regain all that has been lost. That usually means freedom of movement and European citizenship: the right to live or work or take long holidays in Europe as before. All argument is based there: examining the possible pathways by which a reluctant British public might be persuaded to accept it, and an equally reluctant cadre of politicians might be persuaded to act on it.
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And what about the EU’s agenda?
When we began this series we posed the question: “Would they ever have us back?” But we have quickly learned this was the wrong question to the wrong audience. We have discovered no essential antipathy to UK membership among the EU, but the EU has a question of its own: “Will the UK ever change?”
It is Britain’s attitudes which frustrated our partners: our short-termism, our pursuit of narrow self-interest, and in particular that sense of British exceptionalism. So here lies the problem for the British pro-EU lobby. It looks as though exceptionalism isn’t confined to Brexiters. One commentator from within the EU puts it bluntly:
“I am still shocked by how they see Europe,” he says. “(They) treat Europe as a bordello; they don’t care what Europeans think and feel, they just want satisfaction.”
A community, not just a trade bloc
This seems a legitimate point, and introduces the argument which all of the Our Place in Europe writers have alluded to in different ways. Britain needs to understand and accept that it’s not all about us. Our best future lies in being an equal partner in the European project and embracing that sense of community. “There is no revolving door,” as one EU diplomat told us. The EU needs to see Britain’s arguments demonstrating genuine commitment and goodwill towards the EU; sharing its ideals, rather than banging on the door and yelling “Let us in!” Until then, what our opinion polls are showing is only half the battle. The ultimate decision lies with the EU and it’s them we need to persuade.
Some UK pro-EU groups are still actively promoting a closer relationship with Europe – many are even now filling coaches to march in London in a couple of weeks. Others, however, are in danger of losing heart, of running out of steam and ideas, restricted to sad meetings in the back room of a pub, reminiscing about holidays in that perfect little gîte near Pézenas.
Over the Channel, however, the EU watches and waits for signs that the British population gets it. Partners, not leaders, investing in all the continent’s future and not seeing the world as a zero-sum game in which for Britain to win, Europe has to lose. So we must recognise the EU as a crucial audience and talk to them too, not just to ourselves. Now is the opportunity to take a positive and progressive step towards influencing both the domestic audience and those in the EU who hold all those hopes and dreams in their hand.
So have we been so desperate to get back to the civilising embrace of the EU that we have forgotten they may have views about it too? Next Friday we hear from one EU commentator who thinks we have.