Behind the Scenes: To join or rejoin, that is the question

Behind the Scenes: To join or rejoin, that is the question
The potential next UK prime minister will have tough decisions to make.


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

As the prospect of a change of government in the United Kingdom gets more likely, the undying subject of Britain’s relationship with the European Union is ever present. A relatively new debate about whether the UK could 'rejoin' or 'join' the bloc is also taking root.

You’ve got to love semantics haven’t you. For a lot of people, splitting hairs and being pedantic isn’t so much a hobby but a calling in life. Platforms like Twitter give the pedants a perfect forum in which to call out long-suffering commentators and pundits.

Sometimes pedantry is malicious and it is actually a mask behind which bad faith actors seek to use up all the oxygen in the room, drive people away from the debate and kill any chance of a decent discussion about whatever topic is on the docket.

Brexit has attracted that kind of person in droves. But there is a new topic around which the pedants can muster and which actually deserves to be discussed: would the UK rejoin or join the EU?

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

A new poll by TV channel ITV found this week that 86% of people aged 18-25 would back EU membership if another referendum were held. That figure tracks, given that about 75% of the same age group voted for the remain option in 2016.

Other polls tell a similar story of a public either proven right by their Brexit misgivings or rapidly coming to the realisation that life outside of the EU is poorer and far less bright than promised by leave supporters before and after the referendum.

Over 50% support a do-over vote within the next five years. It is a marked and entirely predictable shift in temperature.

Yet another general election is on its way. Possibly in May 2024 or later in October. Either way, it has to happen before January 2025 at the latest and chances are that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will have to call one sooner rather than later, especially if this week's local election results are anything to go by.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is projected to oust the Conservatives after 13-going-on-14 years in opposition, opening the door for plenty of talk about what his government’s Brexit policy will be.

Labour has walked and continues to walk a vague policy line as part of its bid to vanquish the Tories and not lose Eurosceptic voters. That is why returning to the EU fold or another referendum has never featured explicitly among its pledges.

But if public sentiment continues to grow then PM Starmer would have to act. Returning to the referendum-well could also help the Labour leader stabilise the fractious Union that he would inherit from Sunak.

One of the many gripes that Scottish independence voters have with Westminster is that the country has been removed from the EU against its wishes. Attempting to reverse that would defuse at least some of the pro-indy support.

It is impossible to put a timeline on all of this of course. Polls only tell half the story as well but if the UK were to find itself in a position of seeking to resurrect its EU membership, how exactly would that play out.

And how would the process be called? Would the UK be rejoining the EU or simply joining? Language is everything, as your Behind the Scenes columnist has written before.

‘Rejoining’ the EU, implies to some that the UK would be welcomed back into the club with open arms – as promised by many “we’ll leave a light on” MEPs – and would be afforded some or even all of the opt-outs it was granted while a member.

‘Joining’ the EU, meanwhile, suggests that the UK would be treated like any other applying country, having to run the full gauntlet of the accession process before being offered membership based on a negotiated outcome.

The second option is, of course, the only feasible way forward. The opt-outs from Schengen and the euro, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s rebate, were divisive when the UK was a member, reactivating them would be apocalyptic policymaking by Brussels.

Not that anyone serious is even contemplating the possibility of that. Every accession procedure is unique and tailor-made, countries might have joined on the same date but their particular quirks and peculiarities were all woven into their final deals.

It would be no different in any entirely hypothetical UK homecoming. It would arguably be in British interests to seek a clean slate, a fresh start, merely to banish the lingering feeling that it is not a serious country anymore. 

Maybe a eurozone opt-out could be brokered or maybe it would be an implicit agreement that the UK would never be seriously expected to join the monetary union. There is precedent with the likes of Czechia, Hungary and Sweden, who all avoid membership in their own particular ways.

It does not have to be a problem and the risk that Brussels would 'insist on it' is probably more in British hands than many would have you believe.

Schengen would be a difficult conversation as well but given how long this would all likely take, the border-free zone would also probably look very different by the time a decision would have to be made.

Doommongers will say that it won’t even exist by that point. If it does, the UK can either take the simple road and agree to join or string the process out and make a hash of it. It does not have to be a dealbreaker.

Does Brussels want to punish the UK, as many pundits have claimed? Behind the Scenes has never bought into that logic and sees little evidence of it.

In fact, you could argue that bringing the Brits back into the fold would be beneficial for the EU. For example, the UK would meet most if not all accession criteria immediately and would allow Brussels to tell other candidates that joining is possible if you hit your targets.

Spun the right way, it could be used to inject credibility into the long-stalled zombie enlargement process.

Soothsayer Sam

Say Labour wins a majority in late 2024 and spends the next 18 months preparing the ground for a public debate about Brexit; a ‘taking the pulse of the nation’ campaign straight out of The Thick of It.

By that time, a new European Commission and Parliament will be firmly in place, France will be a year out from a presidential election and Germany’s next government would have just taken power. 

In terms of regulation, the EU’s massive raft of climate laws will be reaching a crunch point, as most have an end-date of 2030. Talks will be underway about the next generation and how to bridge the gap from 2030 to the net-zero 2050 deadline.

That is without even trying to guess what Ukraine’s status will be by that point. You can already predict then that there will be little bandwidth for Brit shenanigans in Brussels and the world will have moved on. Asking for a rebate again, would only provoke laughter.

But if Starmer’s government is smart, wins the argument at home that isolation is not the answer – a tall ask – then overtures can be made. 

Whether that is a step-by-step approach of trying to get in with the EEA crowd or going for customs union access would have to be worked out. Your columnist’s gut feeling says that entirely bespoke unique arrangements would not be on the table.

There will then be an inevitable moment of truth in which the inhabitants of the archipelago will have to decide whether they want more of the same-old or make do with whatever scraps Labour have managed to snaffle.

European governments will then hold all the cards and be the ones to rule whether the UK should be given a second chance. If Westminster demands its old seat back, you can guarantee that the answer will be a firm ‘get stuffed’.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Copyright © 2021 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.