The headline above is from the columnist Newton Emerson in the Belfast nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’. He notes an opinion poll recording that two-thirds of Britons want a referendum on re-joining the EU and 54 per cent would vote yes. He then explains why it isn’t going to happen, including that the majority would not be prepared for the long re-entry negotiations in which Britain might be humiliated – compelled to join the Euro, the Schengen Agreement and lose it opt-outs and rebate.
The Tory Party won’t and can’t do it as it would destroy itself and Starmer’s Labour won’t, although Emerson is wrong to say that Labour ‘can only stay in power by burying the question.’ While the venality, incompetence and unpopularity of the Tories may see it lose office, and Labour may even gain it, the Party will not stay in office with a policy that can’t be buried. The majority of Labour voters and members will not stay with a Party that accepts Brexit with promises to ‘make it work’ while its damage continues to do its work.
Emerson quotes a former Irish Ambassador to the EU that Brussels would accept re-entry on the previous favourable terms of membership but that it would need a guarantee that ‘the UK wouldn’t pull the same stunt again.’ Emerson argues that given British politics and public opinion such a guarantee couldn’t be given, although joining the Euro would be as close as one could get.
Emerson proposes that the ‘only realistic alternative’ is ‘inching closer towards the single market, one deal at a time.’ He acknowledges that ‘the Swiss model’ is not a model at all and that the EU ‘hates it’; so it can hardly want to repeat it with a much larger and recalcitrant ‘partner’.
‘The Economist’ has a leader and main article covering similar ground and with the same general view – ‘returning to the question of membership now would reanimate the toxic polarisation of the Brexit years.’ It too doesn’t seem to appreciate that this division is not going away, because the issue is not going away, because its effects are not going away. It sets out some metrics of what these are.
The Bank of England has estimated that Brexit has depressed investment by 25 per cent over the five years to 2021, which can only exacerbate Britain’s poor productivity record. The think-tank Centre for European Reform estimates that by the second quarter of 2022 GDP was 5.5 per cent smaller and investment down 11 per cent. Aston Business School estimates that trade barriers have reduced exports to Europe from 70,000 product types to 42,000. It quotes a survey from Tony Blair’s think-tank that 70 per cent of Britons want a closer relationship with the EU. But of course, it takes two to tango.
‘The Economist’ sets out in more detail its proposals to evolve such a relationship but is clearer on the obstacles than on the process to achieve it. It quotes Peter Mandelson on “reconceptualisation” of the relationship, mentioning financial services. It quotes ex-Tory Chancellor Philp Hammond suggesting a ‘grand bargain’ on migration policy to alleviate Britain’s skill shortages in return for deeper access to the services market in the EU, plus possible return to the EU customs union. The newspaper speculates on a ‘Norway’ type deal or something between it and a ‘Canada’ deal.
Its own plan involves making a deal on the existing Northern Ireland Protocol; making the Trade and Cooperation Agreement work; expanding its scope in its scheduled review in 2026, and ‘reimagining the British-EU relationship afresh.’ It can’t help noting, however, that this might be ‘yet another form of magical thinking’ that has afflicted the British view of its relationship with the rest of Europe for many years. Its proposition involves the EU ‘softening its aversion to the idea of Britain cherry-picking bits of the single market’, which it should apparently do because ‘the scenario it once feared, of Britain becoming a dynamic Singapore-on-the Thames, is remote’. In other words, Brexit has failed so the EU must provide a better one!
Again, we are informed that access to certain markets determined by Britain ‘would be a boon for a bloc that aspires to be a regulatory superpower’; ignoring that the superpower would be much less if it allowed significant rivals to cherry-pick its regulations. Mandelson is quoted on financial services which Britain is concerned to maintain its advantage, while Hammond similarly wants access for British services–including of course financial–in return for help from the EU for the British skills shortage!
The prize for ‘have cake and eat it’ goes to the Labour Party’s Rachel Reeves, who reprises the spirit of the 2016 Leave campaign by claiming that “They’re desperate for a British government that wants to engage. I do feel we’d be knocking at an open door if we went in with a different attitude to our future relationship.” Apparently, the Labour Party hopes for ‘a bolt-on agreement on certifying industrial goods, so that a product approved for sale in one market is automatically certified in the other.’ In other words it wants Britain to be able to set rules for the EU single market!
‘The Economist’ states all this while also noting that the EU lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, was determined that Britain could not cherry-pick, especially over services, and could not re-enter the single market “through the windows”. It is also noted that ‘a hard Brexit suited everyone’, although Britain has found out the hard way that a hard Brexit doesn’t actually suit, while the EU sails on. Why would the EU now save Brexit Britain from itself? ‘The Economist’ quotes a member of Barnier’s team – “Even if you normalise the relationship, that won’t obliterate the economic interests the EU has to defend.” A former British official states that “They are going to look at the EU with puppy eyes, and the EU will take out a gun and shoot the puppy.” So, a “different attitude” doesn’t look like it is going to cut it.
Most immediately, nothing will be achieved unless there is a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the proposed legislation that will allow the British to unilaterally repudiate the bits it doesn’t like is withdrawn or neutered.
The most recent speculation on a deal on the Protocol envisages light checks on goods entering the North from Britain, with the full rigours of the Protocol in effect not being applied. This is a solution that almost all parties in the North would support. They are like the Brexiteers that some of them condemn – a Brexit that ‘works’ as long as it doesn’t so that it really does deliver benefits with minimal cost.
Already the British have unilaterally extended grace periods. But even if such a fudge was agreed, this is hardly the basis upon which new deals with the EU for the rest of the UK could be agreed. The inevitable further development of the EU will see greater divergence between the EU and Britain with greater strains on any deal, never mind a fudged one. The role of the EU Court of Justice is harder to fudge but it is inconceivable that any wider deals with Britain would include one
‘The Economist’ obviously believes that the war in Ukraine shows the necessity for unity in Europe against Russia and that the EU should accommodate such unity given Britain’s role; but the lessons of the war for the EU are not so clear.
In principle the EU and Russia (since it has become capitalist) can accommodate complimentary interests. This does not mean that Russia could become a member–for the same reason that it cannot become a member of NATO. It is too large, too militarily powerful, and with its own political interests and ambitions, including unwillingness to be subordinated to the United States. The war in Ukraine has seen the EU become a casualty of the war, as the US demands sanctions that weaken the EU and strengthen the US. There is little reason to believe this will not continue as the EU is a strong economic competitor to the US and therefore also a potential military one. The EU has sought to avoid the latter but is being forced to confront what it means to be the former.
By contrast Britain has played an outrider role on behalf of the US in the war and has been a willing subordinate to the US for decades. Inside the EU it would only strengthen those countries such as the Baltic states and Poland that prioritise opposition to Russia. The core EU countries have no interest in having this split strengthened.
The EU is an expression of the socialisation of production under capitalism which lays the basis for that socialisation to be completed through the social ownership and control by the producers – the working class. The erosion of national divisions is a political reflection of this process and like the socialisation of production is progressive.
This doesn’t stop the EU from being capitalist, with the increased socialisation of production also raising the competition within capitalism to a new level that only socialism can overcome.