When I last wrote for East Anglia Bylines, some months ago, as an experienced former diplomat, I sketched out the steps I thought were necessary in the UK/EU relationship to build trust and a constructive relationship that might, one day, lead to an application to “re-join” the EU. (I use the term “re-join” in an entirely neutral sense; this has no implications at all about the terms on which the UK might again become a member – we were a member of the organisation, if we were to apply and be accepted, we would be “re-joining”.) I pointed out that these were the same steps one would take even if an application was not the intended destination. Since then, some of those first steps have been taken (the Windsor Agreement) and there are signs that Sunak’s government has an interest in developing a more cooperative relationship, in some specific areas.
Do we know what we want?
At the same time, the polls have moved with more people believing Brexit has failed, though as Professor Chris Grey (@chrisgreybrexit) has recently pointed out in his blog (read it if you haven’t, it’s excellent), a number of those are “leave” voters who believe Brexit could be a success if it was “properly” implemented. With Labour still ahead in the polls, and looking likely to lead a future government, even if a coalition, Keir Starmer has also made clear his view that Britain’s future lies outside Europe, and has drawn criticism from those who think what he wants to achieve is impossible without at least re-joining the Single European Market (SM) and the Customs Union (CU) – or some form of special EU/UK customs arrangement.
I responded to Chris’s blog with a quick “Never mind the destination it’s the journey that matters” and was criticised for, in effect, encouraging dishonesty in politics. This is a fair point and I want to address it here, and supplement what I wrote for EAB in the light of changing circumstances.
“EU membership” is a capsule term encompassing the CU & SM and a whole range of other joint programmes and actions. I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of people in this country, even those who favour an application to re-join the EU, have a limited understanding of the breadth and detail of what is contained in EU membership. This was undoubtedly a weakness exploited by those opposed to EU membership, not just in the referendum campaign, but for years beforehand. In fact “EU membership” was used to encapsulate many supposed disadvantages of membership that were not a consequence of being a member at all. Even today as I write, one once-serious “newspaper” conflates the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, with no care for accuracy, and no shame. The truth is, most of Britain never understood the EU; many saw it as a positive thing without doing so, and the same can be said of those who saw it as a negative.
Any British political leader who stands up today and says “I will take the country back into the EU” simply prolongs the misunderstandings about EU membership and the divisions that plague the country now. They would also be dishonest as they could have no certainty that such a thing was achievable within their term of office, or possibly, at all. But to say, “I believe we should have a better and more cooperative relationship with the power on our doorstep, the EU”, and to seek specific areas in which increased cooperation was achievable, and which would, very clearly, benefit the country, would be an honest statement.
It has been my view for some time that if a future government were to pursue, say, a new SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) agreement with the EU, and explain clearly what the benefits of that agreement were (easier trade for British food exporters, greater safety for British consumers), a solid majority of the country would approve. No doubt die-hard Brexiters would try to portray it as “betrayal”, but “we are against an SPS agreement” doesn’t have the same ring as “Brexit”.
I won’t labour the point; openly building trust and a positive relationship with the EU would be, in part, an educative process for the whole country; one which most of the country never had. It would be an honest process that could be either accelerated or stopped at any point, depending on the political circumstances. It is the basic nitty gritty of diplomacy.
The position of Labour
Now I anticipate that some people will see this as an apologia for Labour, and particularly for Keir Starmer; it’s not, and I will explain why. Starmer/Labour’s approach to the relationship with the EU is, at the moment, stupid and dishonest. Stupid because it ignores the substantial portion of the population (not the false majority/minority split delivered by the referendum) that did not vote “Leave”. In fact, it doesn’t just ignore them, it insults and belittles them, and facilitates the “Culture War” the Tories profit by. Dishonest because no politician can determine the future course of the country and the wishes of the next generation as Starmer pretends to do. It would be very easy to craft a different message:
“As Labour leader, I will not take this country back into the EU. I will seek a better relationship with our nearest neighbours and look for ways to increase cooperation. What happens in the future is for the country as a whole to decide at the time. I cannot bind future generations, no politician can. I know this will disappoint those of you who want to re-join the EU now. I recognise many of you feel deeply that an injustice has been done, but it is neither practical, nor politically possible, to make an application to re-join today. If we do so in the future it must be when it is clear that the large majority of the population consistently support such an application and there is a political leader prepared to do so.”
For what it is worth, I would like to see this country back in the EU, because I know from my experience that the UK carried more weight as an influential member of the EU than it does alone. I am convinced this would be good for everyone in the country, and for the strength of democratic values including the rights of every single person. I think the quickest way to achieve that is by being hard-headed and realistic about what it means. No sugar-coating, no fairy stories. Depending on our future domestic political arrangements, there will need to be cross-party support for an application; it should be obvious why. I actually believe this will happen.
For those of you who want to speed that process as much as possible, the key is a powerful, cross-party, pro-EU mass movement. The European Movement is increasing its strength under new leadership; I have recently joined following the change of leadership; you might consider that too. Politicians know potential votes when they see them (even if they are sometimes slow to recognise the opportunity).
To those who say: “why would they want us back?” I would answer there is no question that it is in the strategic interests of both the UK and Europe. Once we have got rid of the present generation of incompetent and honestly rather dull politicians, a new generation of them will realise it as well. It could happen sooner than you think.
In our next installment, Jacob Öberg, Professor of European law at Syddansk University in Denmark, sets out plainly the legal hurdles which confront the UK in an attempt to rejoin the EU … and why “re-join” is the wrong word. We start from scratch.