Breturn: How the UK Could Re-join the European Union
Insisting that “Brexit means Brexit”, Theresa May intends to single-handedly trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which will formally put the government on the course of negotiating to withdraw the UK from the EU.
May has ruled out beginning the process until the beginning of 2017, as she begins organising new trade agreements and terms of cooperation with the EU and other major powers like the US, China and India.
The prime minister has always been a eurosceptic sympathiser, but was a pragmatic Remainer. Her hands-off neutrality put her in a stronger position to win the Tory leadership than Boris Johnson, one of the zealous faces of the Leave campaign.
The aftermath of the EU referendum is not indicative of competent leadership. There has been a plummet in the pound and a promise for £350 million a year of new NHS funding vanished into thin air. May has already argued with Brexit ministers bickering amongst themselves about the details of any EU deal.
Amid this dysfunction and economic uncertainty, some Remain supporters have been tempted to suggest a Breversal: that the legally non-binding referendum vote could be reneged on.
David Lammy proposed that Article 50 should only be triggered after an extensive Commons debate and a majority of support from MPs, while Owen Smith - criticising Jeremy Corbyn for his lacklustre campaigning for Remain - suggests that there should be a second referendum on the terms of Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats, always diehard pro-Europeans, have pledged to run in the next general election on a platform of fighting for continued EU
However, Leave was won by populists like Nigel Farage, who tapped into disillusionment with “establishment” politics. A reversal of Brexit would only worsen the democratic deficit. It could be particularly disastrous for Labour, which faces a serious threat from UKIP, especially in the North of England.
Even after Brexit, there would be nothing stopping us from eventually rejoining the EU. As a developed and democratic nation, Britain would automatically meet the criteria of any other membership candidate under Article 49.
Breturn would mean an obligation to plan towards euro membership
But as David Phinnemore explains, the conditions of participation would be stricter if the UK wanted to be readmitted. The “special status”, David Cameron’s mantra during the referendum campaign, would no longer apply.
UK citizens have enjoyed the same freedom of movement as other EU citizens, but on rejoining we would have to sign up to the Schengen Agreement (which non-EU nations like Switzerland and Iceland are also part of), which facilitates passport-free travel across Europe.
Cameron negotiated a exemption from the cause of “ever closer union” in Europe, but Breturn would mean committing to it. And most significantly, Breturn would mean an obligation to plan towards euro membership.
For many of those who voted Leave, the concept of this europeanised UK would be a horrible, dystopian vision.
But it might be more agreeable to the 70% of voters aged 18 to 24 and 60% aged 25 to 34, who backed Remain. These generations - who will be more effected by the long-term consequences of Brexit - might want another say on the issue in the coming decades as the world becomes more globalised.
They are also the ones who have most benefited from EU programmes like Erasmus exchanges and subsidies for higher education that are now in peril.
The political upheavals in the home nations outside of pro-Brexit England and Wales has not yet manifested itself.
In Scotland, every single region supported Remain, and the dominant Scottish National Party has pledged to keep Scotland in the EU. As pro-EU Scotland faces being drawn out of the EU by staying in the UK, this has had led to inevitable calls for a second independence referendum.
The majority of Northern Ireland voted Remain. Unsurprisingly this caused republicans like Sinn Fein to demand a referendum on the country’s constitutional status.
Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly Catholic demographically, which means increasing sympathy for unification with the Irish republic. And according to Peter Shirlow, a referendum on unification could be “very, very tight” if more Ulster Catholics can be convinced to support it to undo Northern Ireland’s EU exit.
Brexit might mean Brexit, but the European question is unlikely to go away
Scottish independence and Irish unification would result in the odd situation of Brexit UK being left as the bloc of England and Wales, isolated from its immediate British-Irish neighbours: which would make rejoining the EU seem like a logical option.
Ultimately, the appeal of returning depends on the future success of the EU project. The struggles of the euro and the handling of the refugee crisis no doubt contributed to the Leave vote.
But academics still predict that the EU, as it becomes gradually more federalised, is set become a super-power with international influence and prosperity on par with the United States and China.
Steven Hill notes that the EU is still a young institution whose history is preceded by centuries of conflict, and that the states that would form the US also experienced divisive turmoil before finally unifying.
As Thatcherite Tories are usually eurosceptic, a surprising Remain backer was former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson came out as an advocate for a United States of Europe with a shared currency, army and open borders, and a melting pot of European cultures.
Clarkson’s post-Brexit tweet was concise: “We should have 24 hours of despair and moaning, and then we will all have to roll up our sleeves and make this shit shower work.”
Consider this: what if Britain misses out on the economic, diplomatic, scientific and cultural benefits of an EU that overcomes its tribulations and thrives as a dynamic transnational entity? Then how appealing will rejoining be as an alternative to handling Clarkson’s proverbial excrement?
Brexit might mean Brexit, but the European question is unlikely to go away. Who knows: in another few decades the UK might be arguing about joining as a state of the USE.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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