The 2016 Brexit referendum caused untold destruction to the fabric of the UK. For six years, Brexit has been a stain on British politics and has caused untold damage to our economy. The impacts are now undeniable. As a result, polling is starting to show clear appetite to Rejoin the EU, with a 10 point lead noted in a recent poll. But as conversation turns to the UK’s route back to Europe I have started to think about what reversing Brexit looks like.
Brexit has ripped our country in two
The economic damage and loss of citizenship privileges are the most obvious impacts of leaving the EU. They are also the easiest to fix. Rejoining the EU is an obvious solution. Over night this would essentially reverse most of the problems created by Brexit. Growth may take a little longer to normalise. Trade will not resume over night. EU migrants who left will not come back immediately. But it will set the scene for a gradual resumption of business as usual.
But Brexit has created deeper problems. It has wreaked havoc on our society and trashed our international standing.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the destruction brought on by Brexit. Friendships have ended. Europeans have been treated with hostility. Politics has become tribal and toxic, and worst of all – this was all completely by design. The wreckers and conmen who sold Brexit knew that to do it they would have to break all semblance of social cohesion. Of course, when one considers that Brexit was bankrolled by a hostile foreign power, this starts to make much more sense. The result has been a level of social destruction unseen outside of a full blown civil war.
If not handled correctly, rejoining the EU risks reopening old wounds. Again, I can’t help but feel that this was by design. The Russian backed campaign knew that making it divisive would also reduce public appetite to revisit the issue any time soon. A fail-safe built in that would protect the project even as the destruction became obvious.
Bridging the Leave / Remain divide is the first step
From a personal perspective, I would feel a great sense of catharsis in rejoining the EU in the same way we left. Chants of “you lost, get over it” still ring in my ears. The enjoyment expressed by some over Remain voters sense of loss was ugly. But demanding reparations never works. It just causes people to get further entrenched. It’s also important not to tar every Leave voter with the same brush. In reality, the majority of Leave voters wanted nothing to do with the culture wars that sprung up post referendum.
It’s easy to forget that very few people cared about the EU before the referendum campaign. The referendum forced people to pick a side; a decision that many made reluctantly. The utterly horrific campaign ran by people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson then ramped up the temperature. Suddenly, the side you picked was your identity. The people who drove this, who took money from Russia and who spread misinformation should not get away with it. The people who voted for it are entitled to change their mind without being ostracised. Fortunately, there are strong signs that this is happening.
Anecdotally, I have been able to have rational conversations about Brexit with far greater frequency than has ever been possible. The fact that public opinion is shifting is also a strong indication that this issue is being de-toxified. Boris Johnson is trying to re-toxify Brexit, for the sole purpose of saving his career. We need to do everything we can to make sure that he does not succeed.
Repairing our international reputation is the second step
Hand in hand with the internal strife, has been an international “bunker mentality”. For the last six years we have had a government that has picked fights with our closest allies. Britain has repeatedly treated our neighbours like enemy combatants. Our government has acted in bad faith time and again, threatening to break international agreements before the ink has dried. Although only a limited and specific way – perhaps Johnson should try that excuse for Partygate.
This creates a huge issue for a country that is reliant on soft power. Our government seem incapable of understanding why Britain was able to punch above it’s weight for so long. It was not our military, or our economic might. It was our reputation, our institutions and our role as the gatekeeper for Europe. Brexit did not need to shred these. But it did, because we have a government solely focused on short term power. This is best illustrated by the pointless and vindictive sale of Channel 4.
As Warren Buffet once said, reputation takes 20 years to build and 5 minutes to ruin. Walking this back will not be easy. It may even be impossible. But the only place to start is by rebuilding bridges with our closest neighbours and allies.
So how does the UK rejoin the EU without reigniting the culture wars?
It starts with the Single Market and for this, I will refer to the Liberal Democrats. They have set out a blueprint that, I think, has a lot of merits. It starts by seeking to repair trust by resolving outstanding issues with EU citizens and increasing British presence in Brussels. Presumably this will put an end to stupid, dogmatic policies like refusing to give full diplomatic status to the EU. A policy which ended in an embarrassing u-turn and did nothing but inflame tensions.
Phase 2 focuses on increased UK-EU cooperation on issues like refugees, visas and recognition of professional qualifications. It also specifically calls out rejoining Erasmus, a programme the government vindictively pulled Britain out of (which was a further kick in the teeth for students).
Phase 3 would see the UK rejoin the Single Market. This will immediately deal with some of the worst symptoms of Brexit. It would remove the painful barriers to trade, restore freedom of movement and resolve the NI border crisis. This is where the Lib Dems plan currently ends, but one suspects this would just be the start of a deepening and restored relationship with Europe. Whilst I understand that for many this doesn’t go far enough, I believe that this is a realistic and achievable goal in the medium term. More importantly, after 6 years of chaos the EU are unlikely to accept us rejoining without this critical step.
But what about Labour? In my heart I’d like to see Keir Starmer commit to rejoining the Single Market. However in practice, I think his stance is probably a sensible case of politics over principles. Boris Johnson is itching to reopen the Brexit battle ground. In fact, it’s the only thing that might save his premiership. He will use anything he can to conflate an attack on him with an attack on Brexit. In reality, the two issues are completely separate but starving the conman of ammo is a good move.
Ultimately, 2024 is likely to return a Hung Parliament, which will mean that a coalition government is required. There will be no shortage of partners looking to work with Labour, and all of them are committed to Europe. If a coalition is formed, it’s quite possible that this could pave the way to Rejoin. With that said, being open with the electorate is vital before any change of this magnitude.
Brexit hinged on dishonesty, so anyone unpicking the damage must be squeaky clean. Worse, any hint of trying to Rejoin through the back door will be pounced upon and risks further social collapse. Starmer knows that as well, and seems to be a fundamentally honest man. This may mean a dreaded referendum or having to wait until 2029. But frankly, even if it doesn’t mean rejoining, I’d take Starmer over this corrupt group of chancers any day of the week.