Brexit: Adieu or Au revoir?

Giles Merritt |8 December 2020


© 2018 European Union


At the ceremony marking Great Britain’s admission to the then EEC, a sharp-eyed Financial Times reporter noted that the Union Jack was raised upside down. This proved an ill omen. But despite almost half a century of frequently fraught relations that culminated in Brexit, is it absurd to suggest the British may yet return?

A section on my bookshelves is devoted to pundits’ confident forecasts that were spectacularly wrong, so any suggestion the UK may one day return to the EU must seem doomed to join their ranks. Yet it’s far from impossible.

Boris Johnson’s government is hoping to blame Covid for the chaos and economic devastation of Brexit, but this already looks a serious miscalculation. Once the new vaccines take effect, the corona health crisis will become a fading memory. The impact on jobs and living standards, however, will persist and many people will associate their misfortunes with Brexit in the present rather than with Covid in the past.

The public mood amongst British voters started to shift towards an anti-Brexit majority about a year ago. When the UK-EU negotiations on a trade deal revealed the true cost to business and consumers, the attractions of “taking back control” observably faded away.

Britons’ re-thinking of Brexit is now hardening into hostility. Polling during the autumn found that almost half (49%) of those interviewed believe the UK is wrong to leave the EU, while those who still think it right have shrunk to 39%.

Presenting these findings by YouGov pollsters, the avowedly pro-EU political commentator Peter Kellner had this to say: “Many voters now regret our divorce from the EU, but are not (yet?) ready to contemplate re-marriage.”

Other analysts echo his thinking. In an authoritative new paper on the future of EU-UK relations, Kirsty Hughes at the Scottish Centre on European Relations says: “There could be a scenario in a decade or more whereby the UK might re-join in an outer tier, and where that would be more acceptable to the EU than the UK being a full core member.”

There’s little doubt that next year in Britain will see a collective, nation-wide case of buyer’s remorse. It will be apparent that Brexit was driven by a small minority of Tory politicians motivated by nationalistic nostalgia for bygone days of empire, and misrepresented to voters as a panacea for un-related austerity policies.

The future shape of UK politics is anyone’s guess, but its volatility is in little doubt. The bulk of Prime Minister Johnson’s conservative MPs were ‘remainers’, and once Brexit bites among their constituents Johnson’s grip on the party will be loosened. Parliamentary in-fighting over Britain’s relationship with Europe is far from over.

The key questions are what sort of Britain will emerge from the Brexit debacle, and what sort of Europe might woo the British back? The betting odds favour a break-up of the United Kingdom. By hook or by crook, the Scottish National Party is intent on another independence referendum, and few commentators doubt the outcome if it succeeds in gaining this.

Six-tenths of Scotland’s voters opted in the mid-2016 Brexit referendum to stay in the EU, and an independent Scottish government in Edinburgh would surely seek EU membership. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland may also be reconsidering its fealty to the UK.

The notion of Ulster’s fervently protestant unionists abandoning the British crown and opting to join a united and overwhelmingly catholic Ireland is hard to swallow. But, like Scotland, the province is heavily pro-EU and the economic attractions of a Dublin-Belfast partnership are increasingly discussed on both sides of the border.

If the UK were to be dismantled, leaving England with only Wales as a rump, the London government would not merely lose face but much of its stature and authority. English and Welsh voters might at this point be keen to re-establish close relations with the EU. Much would depend on what the European Union itself looked like.

It might well be stronger than today, forged in the heat of the corona crisis and external pressures. Or it could be weaker, pulled apart by its unresolved north-south, rich-poor fault lines. The EU will, however, have shown itself less vulnerable to implosion than Britain, and better equipped to confront the growing geo-economic challenges of the 21st century.

This article was first published by Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt | Twitter

Giles Merritt has reported from Brussels on EU affairs since 1978, at first as a Financial Times journalist and latterly as a think tanker, having founded Friends of Europe in 1999. He is the author of two recent books – “Slippery Slope: Europe’s Troubled Future” (OUP 2016) and forthcoming “People Power: Why We Need More Migrants” (Bloomsbury, mid-2012).