There was little doubt who came ahead in the spat last week between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over Britain rejoining the EU. She began her salvo acknowledging that the EU had “goofed up” in losing Britain, but that it would fall to her children’s generation “to fix it.” The “direction of travel was clear.” Britain one day would rejoin.
The substance behind No. 10’s inevitable refutation was so threadbare that it bordered on the comic, but then there is no better defense to hand.
Sunak, intoned his spokesman, did not think Brexit was in danger, trying to reinforce the point by saying: “It’s through our Brexit freedoms that we are, right now, considering how to further strengthen our migration system. It is through our Brexit freedoms we are ensuring patients in the UK can get access to medicines faster, that there is improved animal welfare. That is very much what we are focused on.”
Illustration: Mountain People
Is that it? Apart from the fact the claims are at best half-truths, at worst palpable falsehoods, as a muster of Brexit “freedoms” they fall devastatingly short of the promises made during the referendum campaign. Recall the economic and trade boom, a reinvigorated National Health Service (NHS), cheap food, controlled immigration and a reborn “global” Britain strutting the world. It is all ashes — and had today’s realities been known in 2016, the British would still be EU members.
Strengthening the UK’s migration system? Freedom of movement in the EU certainly meant that EU nationals could work in Britain freely, as the British could reciprocally work in the EU, but they tended to be young and single. The Poles, Czechs and Romanians kept their home ties warm by going back frequently as it was so geographically easy and consequently tended not to bring dependents with them. When they had achieved what they wanted, they returned home where per capita incomes were fast catching up with Britain’s.
Now immigrants come from other continents to where frequent return is impractical, and so are forced to settle here more permanently, bringing their families with them. Nor are there reciprocal rights for Brits to work in their countries. Because their homelands tend to be poorer, they are less likely to return. Yes, the UK is considering strengthening the immigration rules, but only because, outside the EU, control of immigration is proving very much harder — families come rather than individuals.
Animal welfare? More than two years on, the much-trumpeted action plan for animal welfare is floundering, with little enacted. Meanwhile, it is the EU that has consistently taken animal welfare seriously.
Faster access to medicines? The claim is risible. If this is a reference to strengthening the early access to medicines scheme — a good measure — note that it was launched in 2014 when the UK was inside the EU. Faster access to medicines is not a Brexit “freedom.”
As von der Leyen said, the direction of travel is away from this barren Brexit — thus everything from Britain re-entering the Horizon Europe research program to a fifth postponement of inspecting food and plant imports from the EU. The logic of geography, economics and the availability of only one-sided trade deals, especially with the US and China, is inexorable. The EU would remain Britain’s largest trading partner: It sets the rules and the British either abide by them or accept reduced trade with all the consequences.
A former top British Treasury official told me that his advice to the Labour Party’s Rachel Reeves, a growth-focused would-be chancellor, would be unambiguous: Rejoin the single market and the customs union. In his scathingly brilliant book How They Broke Britain, the LBC presenter James O’Brien describes how the right-wing, Europhobic ecosystem of media, think tanks and Conservative politicians that has developed over the past 40 years prohibits an honest public conversation. Political leadership cowers in its ever-threatening shadow, so that to keep it calm Sunak has to make claims about Brexit “freedoms” that he must know are specious, while Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, no less aware of the economic and geopolitical realities, has to say there is no case to rejoin the single market and customs union. On Europe, as with so many issues — think the case for proper levels of taxation or even delaying lockdown by three weeks — policy is developed and conducted within this right-wing paradigm of hysteria.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair left office in 2007 accusing the UK media of hunting “like a feral beast tearing people and reputations apart.” Unless Starmer and team act to reduce its power and capacity for untruth, they can expect new heights of feral bestiality inhibiting their every act in government — especially on Europe. Winning a general election would represent one advance, but unless Labour changes the ground rules via some combination of media ownership requirements, regulatory standards and strengthening public service broadcasting, the right’s blocking power would remain intense.
Rejoining would mean faster growth in living standards, better security and paradoxically lower immigration
Yet for all that, Labour is promising measures that if backed by an electoral mandate would accelerate the step-by-step return process begun by Sunak. Only last Friday, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said that a defense and security pact with the EU was a priority. Starmer has talked of improving vital trading relationships — there would be no divergence on key standards — and aims for a veterinary agreement and mutual recognition of professional qualifications. There is potentially more: collaboration on energy security, integrating Britain and the EU’s carbon trading arrangements and even joining the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean convention as a halfway house to customs union and single market membership. A renegotiated trade and cooperation agreement in 2026 could imply a much more full-fledged EU-UK partnership. All this is likely, even certain, with a Labour victory.
But rejoining? Pro-EU sentiment is certainly hardening. The European movement is the largest it has ever been. In London, there is strong support, especially among the young. Labour Party members are overwhelmingly in favor. Rejoining would mean faster growth in living standards, better security and paradoxically lower immigration — a story that works well in both “red wall” seats and urban Britain. It would divide the right into Faragists and realists – thus marginalizing it.
A pragmatic Labour Party would become the natural party of government. Britain would not rejoin in the next parliament, but if the EU can hold together and prosper, rejoining must be a good bet in the parliament after that. Building Europe was never going to be easy. In 2040, we might look back and see Brexit as part of the process. Neither Britain, nor any member state, would want to repeat it.
Will Hutton is an Observer columnist.
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