Rejoining the EU will be right… but it’s too soon to push for it

Nothing has emerged since the start of the referendum campaign to suggest that Brexit promises anything more than serious harm — to the British economy, British culture and Britain’s standing in the world. That didn’t change at 2300 on 31 January.

But the way forward is more complicated than switching from #RevokeArticle50 to #RejoinEU — and not just because the process for rejoining is not so simple.

Polling suggests that a majority have been opposed to Brexit for some time. Some of those will be relieved that the indecision is over, but many will not have changed their minds. But to re-join the EU we need to bring over those who supported Brexit.

Over the coming months and years there will be plenty of opportunities to point out the failings of Brexit and the gap between the reality and the “bright future” people thought they were voting for. We should be holding the government to account for attempting to sideline parliament and the press. We might well need to say a lot about the report on Russian interference in the referendum (whenever it is finally released). But reversing Brexit will hang on people saying “This is not what I voted for”. For Brexit supporters to hear this, it’s vital that we don’t come over as sore losers or humiliating them by seeming to say “told you so” as the reality of Brexit bites.

Among supporters of Brexit there’s been a palpable sense of “wanting Brexit” (or “wanting what we voted for”) though they are often hard pressed to express what this will actually mean. They are likely to assume that we are thinking in the same way — our case is undermined if we are seen to be trying to take away their victory.

In the near future, we will have a tricky balancing act — calling the government to account for its failings over Brexit in a way that highlights the problems and keeps faith with Remain supporters who look to us because of our clear stance on EU membership, without making it harder for Brexit supporters to change their position as they see the reality of what emerges.

The time to talk seriously of re-joining the EU will come. The time to do this loudly is when people are expressing their doubts so that “rejoining the EU” is a way of focussing the changed emotions. We’ll be heard more loudly then if we don’t push it in the near future.

In the last few days I have heard several political leaders with impeccable pro-EU credentials suggest that we shouldn’t talk about re-joining. It would be one thing if that were heard as “give up and embrace Brexit”. It’s quite another if the message is to bide our and prepare.

The wait may not be so long. If the Russia Report is even half as damning as is rumoured people will have every right to be angry at a stolen referendum.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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33 Comments

  • We need to start by ensuring that people know the truth about the EU. This must start with our members. We need to ensure that we discuss the best way to build up close links with the rest of Europe. The situation has changed, and we need to develop the best ways of ensuring that we are ready when the next election comes.
    We need to recognise that our relationship with Europe will be in the news for at least a year. How we respond to this, and preferably lead on the issues will be important. We need to recognise this as urgent.

  • Will the EU still exist in 5-10 years?

  • The weakening of Parliament. ,Sworn Brexiteer MPs. Bravermann on justice etc.The budget that will give sweeteners to everybody to increase Tory support will be put in place to strengthen the Brexiteer case and to make it harder to rejoin.As Brexit bites starting next year the fight will begin. We must plan NOW for that rejoin campaign.

  • Will the UK exist as we know it in 5-10 years?. The Libs Dems need to keep the pressure on this government to ensure we have the closest ties possible with the EU

  • Yeovil Yokel 16th Feb '20 - 12:19pm

    Peter – yawn, here we go again. Yes, the EU will still exist in 5-10 years time, probably stronger, more unified and more necessary than ever before. It’s imminent demise has repeatedly and confidently been predicted since before the 2016 Referendum.

  • This topic has interesting implications for the future of the party.

    Campaigning to re-join the EU would involve persuading voters that they should embrace federalism and joining the Eurozone. These major issues were largely avoided in the Brexit debate. If it failed to gain public support, the party could suffer even more as a single topic fringe party, irrelevant in mainline politics.

    If it becomes an important issue then the EU would again be the subject that dwarves all other political issues until it is resolved. The position adopted by the Labour party would be interesting and important.

    Personally, I believe that the majority of the public and MPs would not welcome returning to the Brexit debate. The policy is therefore a double edged sword with high risks for the party.

    The EU is facing a crisis which guarantees that change will take place within that organisation. Germany’s green policies are destroying her competitiveness and manufacturing revenues. The grid is in danger of collapse and the reliance on Russian gas is becoming a foreign policy issue for the EU. Germany is heading for a sustained recession just as the Commission expects her to address the budget black hole resulting from Brexit. Further integration is always the prescribed solution when crisis looms. All of this could be a step too far for German taxpayers.

    A fully fledged re-join policy would therefore face many serious uncertainties. I have no doubt that many here see rejoining the EU as their top priority, but is it realistic?

  • John Marriott 16th Feb '20 - 3:52pm

    The way things are going over the Channel, there might not be an EU to ‘rejoin’ in a few years time, it least not as we have known it!

    Rather than stress about Europe, any party that claims to represent Liberal Democracy should be aiming its fire on a government that could prove to be the most undemocratic and dangerous for many years.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 16th Feb '20 - 4:54pm

    @Peter, Yes.
    @Barry Lofty, No.

  • “Personally, I believe that the majority of the public and MPs would not welcome returning to the Brexit debate. The policy is therefore a double edged sword with high risks for the party.”

    THIS. This should be the lesson of the last election. Faced with all of the many other life priorities we all have to deal with, ‘stopping Brexit’ was not high enough on the agenda when it was a real live issue. It’s hardly going to be higher now.

    In 4-5 years time once our economy has re-adjusted to whatever deal we do with the EU and other blocs, what’s to say re-joining will even be in our interests? We need to see how the dust settles first before coming out firmly on either side of that argument.

    We need to park the Europe issue for now, and focus on all of the other far more important things that people are actually worrying about.

  • Geoffrey Dron 17th Feb '20 - 8:19am

    LDs should say that they support the UK rejoining a Europe des patries but reject federalim. That might have traction in the UK (assuming Scotland stays), though much of the political project as currently implemented and outlined by Brussels would have to go, which might be a stumbling block.

    In the meantime, the priority is enhanced devolution in the UK backed by a constitutional convention.

  • Barrry Lofty
    Britain will still exist in 5 years time. Firstly, the Tories will not sanction another Scottish referendum and secondly, despite all claims otherwise, membership of the EU handed more power to the independence movements. It is not an accident that the SNP is very pro Europe or that unionists were more likely to vote to leave the EU. The logic of the pro-EU camp seems to be that doing what independence movements want will somehow foil them! I suspect, it’s much more likely, that over the next few years the SNP will loose some of its grip and that as a result there will be a Tory revival in Scotland.

  • John Marriott 17th Feb '20 - 8:55am

    @Geoffrey Dron
    So, you mean “Common Market, Yes and European Superstate, No”? I would buy that and I reckon that a majority of Brits and a good number of our european neighbours would as well. But….how do we get to that position?

  • Foreget the EU, it is out of the question for a decade. Concentrate on the basic survival of this party, otherwise we might as well pack up and go home.

  • A very good article. There is a huge dilemma for the party as we have to walk a tightrope by on the one hand retaining our message that we believe EU membership is best for Britain (if we abandon this we will abandon many of our supporters) while at the same time finding a way to reach out to those who were put off by our Revoke message and who would be put off by a Rejoin message.

    For now, I think we need to decouple the issue of EU membership with the benefits we gain from EU membership. The latter are taken for granted by many and – as we saw with Colin this week at Schiphol airport, waiting in a queue at immigration and saying “this isn’t the Brexit I voted for” – many may be shocked and saddened as they see for real from next year what Brexit actually means. If we’re to win voters round we need to avoid the temptation to blame the Colins of this world and instead take the side of the Colins and turn instead on Boris and Co “You promised Colin that we wouldn’t face huge queues at immigration”.

  • Life moves on and the uk and eu will be different when we get round to rejoining. Irish and Scottish independence may be an unstoppable force even if we do. What is more important, retaining the uk or rejoining the eu though one is the result of the other?

  • This is a very important issue for the party yet there have been only 16 comments in about 25 hours and probably all of them from men. Is the EU finally off the agenda?

    Perhaps it should be. The EU obviously believes that the UK will prosper outside the EU and will become a major competitor. Why else would they insist on us accepting all regulations and the jurisdiction of the ECJ? However, that is a forlorn hope. They did not expect that from Japan or Canada and no self respecting sovereign state would give these powers to a foreign regime in return for trade.

    Except, of course, ones led by Heath, Major, Blair, Brown, etc.

  • Geoffrey Dron 18th Feb '20 - 7:02am

    Now that Brexit is happening, a wave of previously stalled investment is set to boost the British economy. The International Monetary Fund has upgraded its 2020 UK growth estimate, despite lowering forecasts elsewhere, with Britain set to expand 1.4 per cent this year – faster than France, Germany and the eurozone as a whole. This country is seen as an increasingly stable investment destination in a world best by political and economic turmoil.

    That’s the Brexiteer forecast. LDs should see what happens before committing to any policy of rejoining or even a Norway/Switzerland kind of relationship.

  • John Marriott 18th Feb '20 - 8:22am

    @Geoffrey Dron
    Quite right, Mr Dron. I’ve always felt that the EU needed to change its direction of travel. As the song says; “You can’t always get what you want……Sometimes you get what you need”.

    To use the hackneyed phrase, we are where we are. Let’s be realistic about what we can achieve as a little country with a habit, when the chips are down, of punching above our weight. To be brutally honest, ‘the world’ as a whole has far more serious things to worry about than GDP or who won the Oscars. Why, we even have a plague of locusts in Africa at the moment. What comes next? Perhaps it’s time to become a Jehovah’s Witness!

  • Peter Martin 18th Feb '20 - 1:08pm

    The time to talk seriously of re-joining the EU will come ???

    Use the euro, be a part of Schengen, no opt outs? I don’t think so.

    The deal we had was defensible but not any new one we’d have to sign up to. The old deal is just history. Unless and until the EU offer it us again, there won’t be anywhere near a majority for re-entry.

  • Andrew Tampion 19th Feb '20 - 8:31am

    @Martin.
    Agreed the EU meeds to build bridges by acknowledging that the aspiration of ever closer union is a mistake. that it is too centralised, too precriptive and with insufficient national democratic control and that the one size fits all approach is fundamentally misconceived. Then it might be possible to think about re-joining.

  • The EU is determined to form a superstate and will never contemplate a change in direction. The Euro was part of that ambition but can never work because of the disparate economies. Fiscal integration becomes a necessary step to save the Euro and a treasury, finance minister and central taxation becomes inevitable. Democracy, self determination and regional issues drive public sentiment in the other direction but the Commission has never concerned itself with resistance to the grand project.

    Brexit has exposed all the implications of EU membership and the forthcoming negotiations will provide yet another learning experience. I find the idea of rejoining the EU inconceivable.

  • Little englanders have been forecasting the end of the EU since early EEC days of 6 countries in the early 70’s

  • Peter Martin 24th Feb '20 - 9:04am

    @ John,

    I don’t think you could call Emmanuel Macron a “Little Englander”!

    The old EEC wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough and was stable enough. The Maastricht Treaty, the Lisbon Treaty and the EU changed all that. Emmanuel Macron said, three years ago, that the “Euro will fail in 10 years without reform”. So maybe we have another seven years? So will the EU be able to continue if the euro does fail? It’s possible, but in effect, it will mean winding the EU back to what we had in the EEC days and scrapping all the “ever closer union” ambitions.

    Many in Germany would say the Euro has already failed. It is only kept functioning by allowing the ECB to conduct market operations which are clearly against both the letter and spirit of Treaty agreements. Germany has ended up being owed nearly a triilion euros which the debtor countries will never be able to repay.

  • @ Peter Martin “It is only kept functioning by allowing the ECB to conduct market operations”.

    Since when did the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – The Official Website …www.ecb.co.uk have anything to do with it ? Too many acronyms flying about for my liking.

  • Peter Martin 24th Feb '20 - 10:33am

    @ David Raw,

    There is a sort of parallel between the two. Just as the cricketing ECB, (shouldn’t it really be EWCB? ) can’t ever be short of runs to put up on cricketing scoreboards around the two countries, so the ECB, as in European Central Bank, can’t ever run short of euros to keep the eurozone just about alive.

    But the Germans don’t like this one little bit! The way they see it, they have to earn their euros by making stuff that everyone else would like to buy, whereas the ECB ( not the cricketers!) just tap away on their computers to create them for what they see as the slackards in the EU.

    It doesn’t exactly foster the international spirit and brotherly love that we are often told the EU is supposed to create.

  • Perhaps the Liberal Democrats might want to consider to support a Starmer-led Labour Party in supporting a referendum on the UK rejoining EFTA? This returns the UK to the Single Market (and hence to free movement) but not the Customs Union, and it does not involve the ECJ, so it is acceptable to those who supported Brexit on the basis of considerations of free trade or the primacy of UK law.

  • @Paul Murray “Perhaps the Liberal Democrats might want to consider to support a Starmer-led Labour Party”

    Leaving aside the issue of why Liberal Democrats should want to support the Labour Party on anything, aren’t you jumping the gun here? Let’s see what the outcome of the election is first.

  • David Evans 24th Feb '20 - 1:06pm

    Paul, Indeed supporting rejoining EFTA (assuming they would have us) would be a sensible approach, but the law of unintended consequences kicks in when you consider our leaders’ ill thought out approach to a referendum during the General Election campaign.

    Whether we like it or not they promoted and adopted a stance on the Peoples’ Vote that made it easy for our enemies to portray us as anti democratic are we are now an easy target from all sides on anything to do with referenda. The Conservatives will attack us for wanting yet another chance to stop Brexit, and the lower levels of Labour and the Greens will attack us (under the radar) for discarding the People’s Vote campaign at the critical time.

    It rather looks like a Bear trap to me.

  • @ Paul Murray “Perhaps the Liberal Democrats might want to consider to support a Starmer-led Labour Party in supporting a referendum on the UK rejoining EFTA ? ”

    Yes,

  • Paul Murray 24th Feb ’20 – 12:06pm:
    …a referendum on the UK rejoining EFTA? This returns the UK to the Single Market…

    Membership of the ’single market’ would require EEA membership. Switzerland is a member of EFTA, but not the EEA. Essentially this would be a rerun of the EU Referendum; the remain campaign made leaving the ‘single market’ the key issue of the campaign…

    ‘Brexit vote was about single market, says Cameron adviser’ [November 2016]:
    http://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-vote-was-about-single-market-says-cameron-adviser/

    “Leaving the European single market was “the instruction from the referendum,” according to one of David Cameron’s closest advisers.

    Ameet Gill, who served as the former prime minister’s director of strategy until earlier this year and campaigned for a Remain vote, said the Brexiteers’ commitment to leaving the free-trade bloc was the key issue of the campaign and Downing Street spent “months trying to hang that round Leave’s neck.”

    He said it was “a bit weird” for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to now claim that Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t have a mandate for a “hard” Brexit outside the single market.
    […]

    Gill is particularly damning about the attempt to rewrite the history of the campaign by those who, like him, supported a vote to Remain.

    …it does not involve the ECJ,…

    The rules governing the EU Internal Market (correct name for the ‘single market’) are determined by the EU and adjudicated by the Court of Justice of the EU (the ECJ) based in Kirchberg, Luxembourg City. The Court of Justice of EFTA, which is colocated, rarely differs in its interpretation of EU law.

    ‘How EU Law becomes EEA Law’:
    https://eealaw.efta.int/

    Acts that have been incorporated into the EEA Agreement and entered into force must be made part of the national legal orders of the EEA EFTA States.

    ‘Outside and Inside’: ‘Norway’s agreements with the European Union’ [January 2012]:
    https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/5d3982d042a2472eb1b20639cd8b2341/en-gb/pdfs/nou201220120002000en_pdfs.pdf

    The most problematic aspect of Norway’s form of association with the EU is the fact that Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights. This raises democratic problems.

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