Many hoping the United Kingdom will rejoin the European Union one day advocate a gradualist strategy. It is futile, they argue, to rail against the principle of Brexit itself. In time, the economic disadvantages of Brexit will reveal themselves ever more plainly. This in turn will lead to pressure from public opinion for a closer relationship with the EU, perhaps initially through membership of the Customs Union and then a return to the European Single Market. Eventually, according to this roadmap, it will dawn on British public and political opinion that the economic benefits of these can best be secured by full EU membership.
This approach has the benefit for its advocates of postponing any immediate challenge to the contemporary reality of Brexit, while highlighting the economic rather than the political nature of membership.
This gradualist strategy however risks misreading the primarily political nature of the Brexit project and, indeed, of the EU. It presupposes that the natural course of post-Brexit Britain, once the initial frictions of divorce have subsided, will be a reconvergence in their shared economic interest between the estranged partners. This is a large and questionable assumption. It is at least as likely that the foreseeable course of relations between the UK and EU will be one of growing divergence, even hostility. The course of the Northern Ireland Protocol’s implementation points strongly in this direction.
What went wrong in 2016?
It is generally admitted that a key failing of the Remain campaign was its inability to present an emotionally attractive description of the EU and the UK’s role within it. Altogether too much emphasis was given to economic considerations and the wide range of opt-outs that the UK enjoyed. The economic arguments were debated and debatable, and many electors drew the conclusion that if opting out from the euro, from Schengen and from “ever closer union” was a good idea, then leaving the EU entirely might be an even better one. Those counting on a process of economic osmosis, whereby in the coming years the UK will gradually be drawn into a closer relationship with the EU, may well be repeating the mistakes of the Remain campaign.
It is sometimes claimed that the Conservative government is faced with a conundrum in its implementation of Brexit. On the one hand, for many Conservatives, voters, MPs and party members, disentanglement from Europe was precisely what they sought by voting Leave in the referendum. On the other hand, the UK’s long-term economic interests clearly militate against too distant a relationship with our prosperous and powerful neighbours. The Conservative Party has long presented itself as the guarantor of precisely these economic interests.
Not yesterday’s Tories
But today’s Conservative Party is an entirely different political formation from the one historians and anachronistic commentators all too often portray. The Party and its government do not see themselves presented with any intractable conundrum as to the future course of European policy. In a contest between the economic and political aspects of the UK’s dealings with Europe, the Conservatives have opted firmly for the political choice of estrangement from their European neighbours. The bizarre celebration of economically marginal trading agreements with faraway, virtually unknown countries is a potent symbol of this underlying political choice.
As long as a Conservative government remains in power, European policy will always tend towards ever-greater divergence from the EU. The City of London, touring musicians, sea-food producers and pet-owners are among those already paying the price for this divergence. As long as the Conservative government ascribes all the problems of Brexit to the “intransigent EU” and insists that sectoral economic difficulties are a price worth paying for national sovereignty, a substantial section of its electorate will still support it.
Boris Johnson’s vulgar dismissal of the concerns of British business regarding Brexit has been well publicised. But even in his obscenity, he faithfully reflects the emotional logic of Brexit, a logic extremely unlikely ever to accept for economic reasons the sovereignty-pooling involved in rejoining the Customs Union, much less the European Single Market.
Divergence is the recipe
Over the coming years the Conservative government’s course of alienation from its European neighbours may well be an inconsistent one. There may be issues, such as data protection, on which British business and scientific interests mount a successful rearguard action against Brexiter nihilism. But the general direction of travel for this Conservative government is unmistakable. There are still those within the Party who harbour the hope of an imminent EU dissolution. Even those who do not share this fantasy frequently exhibit an arrogant contempt for the Union and its institutions, a contempt zealously fostered by the Conservative media.
The current Conservative Party and its government are incapable of a mutually respectful relationship with the EU. It is a symptom of deep political dysfunction within our current politics that such an attitude may well yield further electoral success in the coming years. Anti-Europeanism is a vital glue holding the present Conservative electoral coalition together.
Those waiting for a more favourable political climate before they are prepared unambiguously to make the argument for rejoining the EU are in for a long haul. Far better to try changing that political climate by their own efforts than sitting around hoping that circumstances will do the work for them.
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