by Professor Andrew Blick
4th July 2022
Acceptance is growing that Brexit is a source of considerable harm to the UK. Even among supporters of leaving who remain committed to their cause, there is recognition of serious problems connected to this project. The most malign outcomes to have manifested themselves include:
- The loss for the UK population of the numerous rights and advantages that came with European citizenship;
- Compromising of the international credibility and external influence of the UK, and increasing isolation from long-term allies;
- Domestic political disruption and the rise of populist tendencies, including at UK governmental level;
- Destabilisation in the UK constitution;
- Increased tension and uncertainty for Northern Ireland and the Peace Process;
- The introduction of barriers to trade in goods and services with the EU, including increased regulatory burdens for business;
- Restricting the ability of the UK to respond to various economic challenges such as inflation and labour shortages; and
- Challenges for the UK financial; creative; research; agricultural; fishing and other sectors;
It is hard to conceive of a more damaging single decision taken in the UK or any other comparable state. These harms, moreover, are not one-off events, but cumulative in nature. While Brexit persists, they will continue to grow. More difficulties can be expected to join them – for instance, heightening barriers to the operation of the UK financial sector; and the impact of the delayed full controls on imports from the EU, if and when they are imposed. Relations with the EU and its member states, and perhaps the United States, are set to deteriorate further as a consequence of the approach the UK government is taking to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Such a turn of events would entail more political damage, and possibly economic harm, were a trade dispute to develop. Furthermore, significant tangible benefits that might offset these detriments are lacking. Some claims – about vaccines and enhanced autonomy in foreign policy – are misleading; while others – involving, for instance, imperial measurements – are simply risible.
Key arguments offered on the losing side of the 23 June 2016 European Union referendum, then, have proved correct. Yet while significant portions of the public at present see Brexit as not providing desirable outcomes, the idea of the UK rejoining is not yet an option on the mainstream political agenda. It should be. Those who supported remaining should see that which has transpired since 2016 as confirming that their judgement was sound; and accordingly maintain or resume their support for the UK being a part of the EU. There are various criticisms which advocacy of rejoining is likely to meet, including from former remainers. They include that it is an extreme position; that it is a sign of psychological weakness, driven by emotion rather than reason; that it is backward-looking; that it will revive the damaging political instability of the post-referendum period; that it is unrealistic in domestic political terms; that it is a proposition unacceptable to the EU; and that to reverse the outcome of the vote of 2016 would be undemocratic.
Some opponents of a rejoin programme offer a series of alternative courses of action (that may not be compatible with one-another), for example that we should focus on maximising the supposed potential advantages of Brexit; or that we should align more closely with the EU in some respects. They might – if from a former remain background – suggest that rejoining could be possible at some indeterminate point in the future, but that we should wait until circumstances become more propitious, perhaps with at most some gentle nudging to assist such a development (it is, furthermore, likely that at some point the claim will be made that there was a time in the past when re-entry was a possibility, but the decision is settled and it is now too late for such an initiative).
Rejoining is however the only satisfactory means of addressing the manifest problems caused by Brexit. The attainment of this goal presents a substantial challenge, as one might expect of an important task. But failing to pursue it is not a means of avoiding problems, which mount around us as Brexit continues to play out. Claims that re-entry into the EU is not a practical option are in a sense self-fulfilling. A key obstacle to this objective is that those who might seek to achieve it are dissuaded by the perception that such a programme is doomed to fail. Recognising that such predictions need not be correct is a means of overcoming them. It is not possible at this point to provide a precise map or timetable for rejoining of the EU. But it is clear that the process can only begin with people openly acknowledging the necessity of this objective. When doing so, they should urge others to combine with them, working within and outside existing party-political structures. When faced with growing harm, the time to commence reversing the action that has caused it is now.
 Supporters of leaving would presumably not acknowledge all of these problems.
This report was produced as part the Federal Trust’s project Brexit Can Be Undone. You can find out more on the background of this project here: Brexit Can Be Undone
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