Is Britain rejoining the EU by stealth?

Seven years after Brexit, the writing is on the wall. But an official return isn't palatable for either side

A person wears a Union Flag outfit and a mask with 'Brexit' painted on it during a carnival in London last month. EPA
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Peter Foster has spent his life nurturing networks of contacts with insights and views that fill his new book about Brexit. The first half examines “what went wrong” with the British departure from the EU and the second half asks what can be done about it.

What is being done is that process is going into reverse. As Foster relays, there is nothing certain or easy about this developing rehabilitation. But there are areas where the UK will or can move much closer to the EU, to reverse some of the harms of recent years.

What went wrong with Brexit is probably best summed by a quote from the EU negotiator Stefaan de Rynck, who is quoted in Foster’s book: “The UK government played a game of chicken by itself.”

I remember listening to the then Brexit secretary David Davis at a dinner, where he bombastically declaimed that the UK could always fill the Channel Tunnel with concrete if the EU did not meet his negotiating demands. The EU did not, and the Channel Tunnel remains a functioning connection between continental Europe and England.

Polls show that the UK public is now heavily in favour of rebuilding a close relationship with Europe. A survey last week asked people to choose the country’s partner of choice and 44 per cent said the EU as against 34 per cent plumping for the US.

Although heavily skewed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic performance of the UK since it pulled out of the EU has been below par.

There are many more aspects of restitching ties that fall short of rejoining the bloc

There is a recognition that some of the damage done has been needless but inevitable, given that the UK was no longer participating in the EU’s single market. To give one small example, it was revealed last week that touring musicians had taken an enormous hit from Brexit.

An industry survey found 43 per cent of respondents said that the EU is financially out of bounds, while 65 per cent said they have received fewer invites to tour the bloc. Eight out of 10 respondents said their income had fallen in the past three years because of the break-up.

The decision by the UK to rejoin the mammoth EU-wide Horizon programme that funds scientific research was London’s first step to returning to the EU fold.

In the year since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took power, London has also signed the Windsor Framework to allow the Northern Ireland economy to remain in the EU single market while easing checks on trade between the province and British mainland.

There are many more aspects of restitching ties that fall short of rejoining the bloc.

But it is not at all clear that the EU would even welcome a push by the UK to rejoin. It has, after all, survived the first punch of the British exit and is in many ways more cohesive without the UK’s presence at its decision-making tables.

That said, both sides – and even many Brexiters – will recognise that Britain is a European reality. The war in Ukraine has helped boost this pragmatic recognition that the UK cannot simply be a sidelined fact of life. Migration is another factor that has to engender co-operation between the two sides.

Experts, meanwhile, are trying to work out what a Labour government would mean if it took power in the 2024 election. Few would have a good take on what the party will do to repair the gulf with Europe.

At the start of this year, David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, ruled more things out than in when he said the UK would not rejoin the EU, single market or the customs union. Instead, it would work to fix the bad Brexit and increase trade.

Foster says, rightly, that even if Labour leader Keir Starmer wins the election, he will still face the threat of Conservative Brexiters fomenting opposition to working with Europe. On the other side of the coin, he noted that his European interlocutors say any future new agreements will have to contain safeguards against a reversion to populism.

Overall, they remain burned by the whole Brexit experience too.

After the Horizon decision, there are other obvious areas for rehabilitation that could be considered. The EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, signed in 2020, provides for a partnership council that has never been fully established.

The two sides could have a go at creating that as a forum for discussion on how they could work together. There could be talks on the creation of a European Security Council to get the UK back in the room on the big issues facing a continent at war.

The Tony Blair Institute has sketched out options for a closer alignment between the UK economy and the EU. One option would be to pass a blanket law aligning standards in strategic areas. This could mean providing the UK with access to markets such as the highly regulated and fast-growing battery storage sector.

There is even the prospect that, if the Northern Ireland arrangement is so good for Belfast, the agreement could be stretched to cover the entire UK economy.

Former prime minister Theresa May’s Global Britain concept promised free trade in goods and services along with Brexit. What’s coming, instead, is a remodelling of the UK’s former ties with its European neighbours.

Published: September 11, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: September 16, 2023, 8:56 AM