Like, I would guess, many of my former colleagues, during the course of my career I made friends with a number of diplomats from other countries. Some of those friendships have endured, and every now and then, I have an opportunity to talk with them.
Commitment, not a revolving door
In 2016, not long after the referendum, I was discussing what had happened with a former Scandinavian diplomat, now retired, and I mused about the possibility of the UK, at some point, making an application to become a member again. Not resuming its old membership (as Jacob Öberg has very clearly set out for East Anglia Bylines, that is not possible), but applying afresh to become a member. My colleague was silent for a moment, and then he used a phrase which has resonated with me ever since: “You, know,” he said “we cannot operate a revolving door. You need to think about your ability to make a commitment. That’s the first step.” The UK has since trashed its reputation for being a nation that makes commitments and sticks to them. Two-party FPTP did allow us to make commitments, as long as there was a degree of consensus about some of the basics. That consensus no longer exists, about anything.
And yet, only a few days ago, Simon Coveney said: “It won’t happen anytime soon, but despite the turmoil of the Brexit years, the EU will always have the door open if Britain decides to come back. EU and UK are stronger, safer and more prosperous together.” He is right. Those strategic, long-term imperatives will exert their force on the UK and the EU in an increasingly uncertain but strongly interconnected world.
What if the UK were to reapply?
In the last few months I have been sifting through the conversations I’ve had with former EU colleagues to identify the common factors in their responses to the hypothetical question, “What if the UK were to reapply?” We need to be clear that no individual can give a definitive answer to the question. If it were to come to it, the process that leads to membership is a collective one, involving all the member states and the EU Commission. The only individuals that might have an overwhelming voice are the leaders of the larger EU member states, or the President of the Commission. There may be a modern De Gaulle; we might one day find out.
Identifying the key points
But in my last conversation, a few months ago, a former colleague, a person whose wisdom I particularly value and who has filled many of the most senior roles in his country’s diplomatic service and in government, and still does, helped me to pull together the common threads in my discussions. He presaged Coveney’s statement about the long-term strategic interests. He also presaged one of the elements of Jacob Öberg’s piece. That isn’t surprising, because I would guess many of my former colleagues would do the same.
These are those common threads:
- The strategic interests of both the UK and the EU point in the same direction; the negative impact of Brexit will be overcome.
- There will exist a “constituency” of countries favourable to UK membership. Some because they are old friends and valued the UK’s positive and pragmatic stance on international issues, and would like to see it return, others for reasons of “balance” in the internal dynamics of the EU.
- UK membership of the EU would not only have a positive impact in the economic and international political arenas, it would in domestic politics in the UK and some member states as well.
- Lastly, as a former member state, it is likely the association period would be shorter than it would for a new candidate state applying in normal circumstances. A period of 10 years came up in my most recent discussion, just as Jacob Öberg suggested.
As of today, UK membership of the EU is a non-question. To become a question, it would have to be raised by the leader of the governing party, on the basis that a majority of the population wished it so. Here one has to recognise that the dynamics of being outside the organisation with a significant body of opposition to membership are different to being inside with a body of opposition that is not in the mainstream of politics. On the last point about the length of the association period it is very clear that the starting point is when the UK has re-established itself as a trustworthy partner which appreciates that the door to entry does not revolve.
We can get there, but it isn’t an easy ride. I’ve already made clear my views about how to bring it about as quickly as possible.
So far, any new membership of the EU seems to be down to British attitudes rather than those of member states, who seem ready to welcome us if our attitudes change. But analysis of British public opinion reveals there may be cause for optimism, as we shall see next week.