Debate: Should the UK rejoin the EU?

Two long-time British columnists go head-to-head in one of the country's most fraught debates

Recent polling suggests a slender majority of Brits are keen for an eventual return to the bloc. Reuters
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Gavin Esler: YES – it would be a hugely patriotic act

One definition of a patriot is someone who always wants to do the best for their country. By that definition, rejoining the EU would be one of the most patriotic acts any British citizen could contemplate.

Why? Because the supposed “benefits” of leaving the EU have been impossible to find, the results so divisive, and the backlash against leaving the bloc (especially by those too young to vote in 2016) is real and growing. One of the leading advocates for Leave, Jacob Rees-Mogg, was so desperate to find something good to say about the Brexit disaster that he asked readers of the down-market tabloid The Sun if they could identify the benefits for him. We are still waiting.

The false promise of Leave was to spend the fantasy £350 million a week we supposedly sent to the EU on improving “our NHS” instead. Those who work in the National Health Service say it is, in fact, now facing its worst crisis since its foundation in 1948. While Brexit benefits are non-existent, the dreadful effects of Brexit self-harm are everywhere.

By any obvious metric, including damage to the UK’s GDP, trade barriers, loss of jobs in the finance sector, loss of much needed EU workers, and even loss of Britain’s reputation for common sense and fair dealing, Brexit has been the most stunning example of political self-harm since the Suez Crisis in 1956. At least Suez was a temporary political disaster solved by quickly removing British troops from the canal zone and removing the prime minister responsible, Anthony Eden. Unfortunately Brexit is the mess that still envelopes us, although it has hastened the removal of not one but four failed Conservative prime ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – none of whom could make it work or get it permanently “done” as promised.

If an election were held today, the Conservatives who made the mess would be all but wiped out. Right now, they run no local councils anywhere in Scotland or Wales and their reputation even among unionists in Northern Ireland is that of an English nationalist party that doesn’t understand much about Ulster.

Rejoining the EU would also be beneficial for our friends in the EU, but it is extremely unlikely at least for now. Labour party leader Keir Starmer views talk of rejoining as a distraction. The swing voters he needs to win a general election may have voted for Brexit and he does not want to alienate them. EU nations may also be wary of the ludicrous ways in which the UK has behaved since the 2016 Brexit vote.

But if the UK fails to rejoin, voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland may vote for Leave in a different way – by voting to Leave the UK itself. Four successive polls show Scottish voters now favour independence. The UK as currently constructed, therefore, may in the 2020s cease to exist. If rejoining the EU is not a live issue in Westminster, it should be – not merely to make the UK richer but also to make it more likely to stay United as a Kingdom.

Sholto Byrnes: NO – here's an even better proposition

Referendums, the British people were told, were meant to settle momentous questions for a generation. Way back in 2004, then British prime minister Tony Blair said it was time to “let the people have the final say” on the EU. “It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision-making or not,” he said. Except when the referendum was held in 2016, there turned out to be nothing “final” or “once and for all” about it for the Remainers. Because the unexpected happened. They lost. And that is why we are all still talking about it.

Lies were told, it was said – and there were indeed untruths and scare tactics on both sides. But when has that ever invalidated a democratic election? Normally we trust the voters to see through the fog of campaign promises. One problem with the EU, however, is that it is institutionally deceitful. Take the EU constitution. It was signed by all member states in 2004, but failed after Dutch and French voters rejected it in referendums in 2005. How did the EU react to this democratic defeat? They simply rearranged the text, as its author former French president Giscard d’Estaing admitted, and snuck it through as the Lisbon Treaty.

The EU is always determined to increase its powers, whatever the voters say. A second referendum in the UK would thus continue another undemocratic EU tradition, which is that if a country gives the “wrong” answer to a question about the EU – as the Irish and the Danes found – they are asked to vote again so they can give the “right” answer. Referendums, it seems, are only the “final say” if they go the EU’s way.

The democratic deficit in the EU – which has three “presidents”, none of whom the ordinary voter has any say in – is a profound danger in an institution whose leading lights want to become a “United States of Europe”. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said so, as has former EU parliament President Martin Schulz. Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt even wrote a book under that title.

Do Britons really want to be a part of a United States of Europe? I doubt it, but that is the EU’s true destiny. None of this has changed. What has changed is that for many, Brexit has not appeared to be much of a success. But that has been only one version of Brexit. There are many. The referendum question was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” There is nothing stopping the UK rejoining the single market or the customs union. There is nothing stopping reinstating freedom of movement, even, if the will is there.

If French President Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community gets off the ground, the UK should join: it represents precisely the two-tier, looser continent-wide body that Eurosceptics hoped for years the EU could become. It didn’t. It never will. That’s why the UK left – and should never rejoin.

Outside, the UK can continue to share the continent’s culture, its history, gastronomy and other glories, and come as close to the EU in terms of trade as is liked, while thankfully being free of its inward-looking tendencies, its rampant Islamophobia, and its scornful attitude to the Global South. But for Britain once again to be “confined and limited” to this “area across the channel", as the great Labour cabinet minister Peter Shore put it in 1975, would "be a contraction and a reduction of all the things with which we have been concerned. It is the world we belong to, and it is mankind of which we are a part".

Published: January 05, 2023, 5:00 AM