The editors set difficult challenges for me. This time they asked, “There is a lot of talk about what the UK can gain if we rejoin the EU. Can you think what is in it from the European Union’s point of view?” I got stuck. I could not really think of anything.
Equal partners, or are we exceptional?
True, in a general sense, it’s always better to work together, as being together makes us stronger. But this is only true if we really work together as partners. If the last decade has taught us anything about the UK, it is that Britain does not consider itself to be an equal – and the EU is the union of equals. Everything that has happened since David Cameron’s European tour in 2015, during which he tried to blackmail Europe by saying “give Britain special treatment, or else…!” has shown us that Britain is not a reliable partner. They constantly demand we make exceptions for them while not respecting even agreements they themselves hailed as enormous successes. If you are advertising yourself as someone ready to break international law when it suits you, even if it only in a “specific and limited way”, you are not exactly making a convincing case to be considered trustworthy and reliable.
Partners follow procedures
Even pro-European Britons still seem to be unable to understand what the European Union is. A popular tweet I saw recently was blaming Brussels that Britain is not back in the EU yet. “If they wanted us, they would already have taken us in,” that person wrote. I am sorry to break it to you, but the EU is not Russia. We won’t just “take you in” because we think it’s in our interest. If you want to join, you have to make an effort, follow the procedures and apply formally first.
It’s not all about you!
And should it really be the EU begging Britain to come back? If we have learned anything over the last few years it is that the belief that “the EU needs Britain more than Britain needs the EU” is false. It’s quite the opposite. While Brexit and potential rejoining is still a major issue and a major point of the political discourse in the UK, in Europe it has no real impact on the lives of most ordinary citizens. None of my Italian, Polish or Finnish friends discuss Brexit (unless they read about shortages of this and that and ask me if it’s true that Brexit is so bad). And don’t hold your breath for that domino effect: even Euro-sceptics aren’t incapable of learning from observation.
It would be nice, of course, to have you back, but first you have to understand that it’s not ALL ABOUT YOU. So far some rejoiners haven’t even grasped this simple fact. For example, I see Brits advocating “bring back freedom of movement”. It’s absurd. It sounds like someone who has got off the bus and is now shouting “Bring the bus back!” because it was nicer on board. I’m sorry to break it to you, but buses are still driving around, and Europeans travelling in them are watching you standing at the roadside in the rain after you had decided to get off. You still might be able to get a ride, but you need a new ticket…
Who needs who?
I felt bad about being unable to find anything positive, so I asked my friends, and then my followers on Twitter, if they could come up with something. When we filter out enthusiastic Brits telling me – obviously in contradiction to the reality around us – that the EU cannot survive without Britain, I did not get much. The economy and international trade was mentioned by some, but others quickly pointed out that we don’t need the UK to be an EU member to trade with us. It seems that a Norwegian-style Brexit – as promised by some before the referendum – would be a desirable outcome for many in the EU too: with Britain sharing the common market with us and paying us for the privilege while having no say in how we run things in Europe.
Is the UK an exceptional cat?
My friend Sławek proposed that the EU should appoint Britain as our cat: it has already perfected the skill of being unable to decide on which side of the door it wants to be. But the reason we get cats is not that we want to be constantly woken at 4am by meowing and scratching at the door. So unless Britain suddenly turns into a ball of fluffy, purring cuteness, I am afraid the only path is for it to come to terms with the fact that it is just another country that must take its place in the candidates’ queue. And yes, Britain, that might mean that you’ll be queuing behind Albanians and Ukrainians, which seems to annoy some of you. But if you think you are better than other European nations, are you really ready to share values of our European family?
So far we’ve spoken to diplomats, lawyers, politicians, Europeans in cafes and at dinner parties. We have heard, insistently, what we need to do to become EU members again. Next Friday we will discuss how to begin the long journey back.
Though perhaps, it may not be so long…