Simon Usherwood sets out five reasons why going down the road of rejoining the EU would prove difficult for any UK political party.
The growing unpopularity of Brexit has given new hope to those who advocate rejoining the EU. Turning the ‘will of the people’ back on Leavers, ‘rejoiners’ argue that, if people have changed their minds, then so can the government.
There is, for those who regret the decision to leave the EU, a certain seductive appeal to ‘just rejoining’: a simple solution to a complicated problem. But like ‘taking back control’ before it, simple solutions don’t really stand up to closer inspection.
Indeed, there are at least five major reasons why it’s anything but simple.
Since polling has given rise to much of this discussion, it’s worth considering what people actually think.
Certainly, 60% of people think that Brexit was a bad idea and that if asked the same question as in the 2016 referendum they would now vote to remain, a marked increase since the broadly even split which lasted until 2021. This majority for ‘Remain’ that has existed since late 2021 across a poll of polls has now widened to 56%.
But doing something different back then is not the same as wanting to undo things now. Polling on what should happen now is much more ambivalent: when given more than a simple ‘in/out’ choice, people think positively about having a closer relationship, but the appetite for returning to EU membership is much more of a push.
Of course, part of the picture is that views on Brexit are tied to views of a struggling economy, the cost-of-living and the (unpopular) government of the day, suggesting that opinions on Brexit are not that deeply held. Given that fewer than 10% of people rank it as an important issue, it does not shape the public debate in the same way it did in 2019, for example.
Party political leadership
Which runs neatly into the second problem: why should any party invest a major amount of political capital into something that is neither a priority for most people and which is likely to inflame a significant minority?
Even if economic modelling suggests that EU membership would remove some long-term costs to the UK, those would only come after another period of uncertainty about whether the whole project would come off, followed by transition and adjustment. Other policy options such as major investment in rebalancing regional inequalities or a programme of housebuilding might produce quicker and less politically painful effects.
In that context, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Labour’s new ‘missions’ make no mention of the EU. Starmer has been able to build a very significant lead for his party in the polls with hardly any mention of Brexit, so why risk rocking that boat?
Even the cheerleaders of Remain/rejoin, the Liberal Democrats, have gone rather quiet on the subject as they focus on securing by-election wins through hyper-local campaigning: their main news page includes only one piece that makes (indirect) reference to Brexit this year.
It’s possible to conceive of a party pushing the rejoin agenda and winning an election. If that happened, it would provide the necessary parliamentary majority for all relevant legal decisions to submit a formal application under Article 49 TEU and ratify membership of the EU.
This said, it’s impossible to conceive of a government in that position trying to push accession through without a popular vote. Indeed, various advocates of rejoining say you might need two referendums: one to confirm that the government should seek membership and a second to approve the final terms of that membership.
The experience of 2016 suggests that such votes might not go as polling suggests. In such a scenario, Leave parties might have lost the preceding general election, but they would still have considerable resources and activists to push a message that would inevitably revolve around how politicians want to overturn the 2016 decision.
The ability of campaigners to get voters to actually vote would be more constrained in any new vote, as they will face the additional hurdle of explaining why the public need to return to an issue that was supposedly settled only a few years ago. The legitimacy of a rejoin majority but with fewer votes than Leave last time would open a new point of attack from those who wanted to fight it.
At which point we run into the elephant in the room: rejoining isn’t just up to the UK.
The EU holds all the power over whether to let a country become a member: rejoining states don’t get any special rights in that regard. Not only do you have to comply with entry requirements on political and economic capacity to manage the effects of membership, but you also have to get the explicit approval of all existing member states and of the European Parliament.
None of that is a given.
As times passes, the UK is diverging from EU standards. Moreover, as a new applicant the UK would be obliged to commit to being part of those bits of the EU that it used to have opt-outs on, like the Euro, Schengen and various bits of justice and home affairs.
Member states and the EU Parliament might also have doubts about whether they want the UK back. They might be concerned, for example, that the UK would stymie certain policy agendas, since the UK would once more be getting to vote on things it dislikes (such as, possibly, the NextGenEU package with its debt financing).
There might also be concerns that the UK’s historic ‘awkwardness’ would persist, in terms of not playing along with general expectations of constructive behaviour and not using ‘Brussels’ as a scapegoat for unpopular political choices. The EU might well ask itself, does it need another member that causes difficulties?
However, the primary EU concern would be that the UK might change its mind again.
All through this piece, we’ve highlighted the shallowness and changeability of public and political opinions: there are simply very few people who care a lot about the issue in the UK, either way, and Remain/Leave identities have weakened too. That means there’s a huge incentive for politicians to use it as a proxy for other agendas.
Even a double referendum strategy could not guarantee that membership would be settled for an extended period. If you can reverse a decision from 2016, what’s to stop you revisiting the question again in a few years’ time?
Back in 2006, a certain politician spoke about the need to ‘stop banging on about Europe’: ten years later that same individual oversaw a referendum that produced even more banging on about it. Which is to say that our control of the future is very limited.
Perhaps in the much longer-term rejoining could become a viable policy option, but for now it presents a particularly difficult path for any politician to follow.
By Professor Simon Usherwood, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.
Sign up via the UK in a Changing Europe website here to attend the first of our new online panel series and hear more about the feasibility of ‘rejoin’.