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21 Dec 2018

Relationship with the EU

It would appear that there is a new movement in town. One with its very own hashtag. #WeWantYouToStay, coined by Finnish politician Alex Stubb, grew out of an article by Timothy Garton Ash. Brexit, Professor Garton Ash argued, ‘would create a festering British ulcer, hurting and weakening the body of the European Union.’

His solution? Another referendum, and one, crucially, in which the 27 state unequivocally their wish to see the UK remain in the club.  The thing is, I’m not so sure they should.

The demand for another referendum is understandable. People who don’t want to leave the EU hanker after any opportunity to remain. And the EU will be weaker without the UK. Weaker in terms of both the size of its economy, its ability to act effectively on the international stage.

But it is a logical fallacy to infer from this that, rationally, the 27 should want us to stay. Far from it. First, imagine the process whereby this might happen.

Parliament would need to agree on a question to be posed to the electorate – and there is a dizzying variety to choose from, none of which looks like to lead to a clear or conclusive outcome, to the point where one observer has opined that ‘public opinion seems to be arranged perfectly in order to produce maximum chaos and maximum rancour in the event of a second referendum.’ The Brexit poll of polls now stands at 53-47 in favour of remain.

And this slight shift to remain is made up more of those who either did not or could not vote in 2016 coming out in favour of remain. There is little evidence of anything approaching large scale switching from leave to remain.

Now imagine that this divided country voted narrowly to remain – say, hypothetically, by 52-48 on a slightly smaller turnout than in 2016. What then? Well, the permanently aggrieved pro-Brexit minority would immediately start militating in favour of a decider – a third vote to settle things once and for all. Politics as rock, paper, scissors.

The Conservatives, deeply divided over Brexit (and remember 58% of their voters in 2017 voted Leave), would face calls from within their own ranks for such a vote to be held. They might also face pressure from some kind of UKIP successor party that profits from disillusionment with a political establishment seen by some as having betrayed its own electorate.

How, then, would this Britain, permanently on the verge of reconsidering its membership again, interact with its European partners? Well, it would cause trouble. Remember, even those campaigning for a referendum do not appear all that content with the EU as it is.

Prominent remainers promise – dishonestly – that a reform of free movement is forthcoming from the EU. Any UK Government would have to take up this call following a second referendum.

And remember, this is the United Kingdom which, even when its population rarely if ever thought about the EU, tried to blackmail its partners when they attempted to reform the Eurozone.

The UK that, even before it had torn itself apart over a referendum during which fears of a European army were raised, vetoed attempts to create a modest, small scale European HQ. A Britain which, before it had even dreamt of a big red campaign bus, regularly railed – despite a generous rebate –  against the perceived inequities of an EU budget.

What chance treaty change with such a member state at the Council table? What chance the development of the meaningful EU security policies member states now seem to favour?

What chance, perhaps most importantly, securing unanimity on any future EU budget, particularly given the stated desire of the European Commission to ‘eliminate rebates’?

And it’s worth pointing out that the deal signed up to by the Prime Minister will provide the EU with significant ability to dictate rules to the UK –  without the latter enjoying any sort of vote over them.

Meanwhile, as the Union continues to reverberate to the growing values conflict between a liberal west and more illiberal east, don’t for a moment assume that the UK will rush to the defence of the former. This UK that has already proved itself all too willing to use alliances tactically, even if that involves shielding Victor Orban.

These are strange and unsettled times in British politics, with no prospect of things settling down whether we end up leaving the EU or not. Under such circumstances, the EU, like the UK itself, has to choose from among unpalatable choices.

Lose a large member state and suffer the consequent diminution of influence in the world. Or, alternatively, welcome back a member state that promises to be nothing but trouble, up to and including deciding to hold a vote on membership again in the not too distant future.

Those who have promoted the #WeWantYouToStay may want to be careful what they wish for. Brexit may indeed be an ulcer. But surely external ulcers are preferable to internal ones?

By Anand Menon, director The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs, King’s College London.


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