Why ‘just rejoining’ isn’t a simple option

Yesterday I found myself on the brink of an interesting discussion about Brexit. Which possibly says something about me, as much as it does about the subject.

We’d started talking about public opinion and the emergence of what looks like a more robust move towards thinking that EU membership is a good thing. John Curtis has an excellent overview while even Matt Goodwin’s new polling on the effect of reminding people about the costs of membership still producing a plurality in favour (even if his point that things aren’t that solid is fair enough).

As I’m not a public opinion person – and know that well enough not to pretend I am – it was the next step of the discussion that was where I was pulled in.

Here, the discussion was about the lack of supply of party political options for people with this view on membership: there isn’t a national party pressing for it, despite the apparent appetite among voters.

Again, there are internal and external party political reasons for why this is, which aren’t my interest right now.

What is is unpacking some of the more mechanical aspects of why the UK rejoining the EU isn’t simply a matter of ‘just undoing the past few years’.

The legal bits

First up, we have to revisit the EU’s own treaties.

The reason is that this is the basic text that regulates membership, so any policy is going to have to work to this.

You’ll recall Article 50 – mainly because we all went on about it for four years after the referendum – which deals with leaving the organisation. You’ll be shocked to discover that Article 49 covers the joining bit.

And it’s the only mechanism for joining if you’re a sovereign state, so no avoiding it.

Article 49 puts in place various steps: approval by the Commission that you are in the right ballpark to join; extensive negotiations to check your political and economic systems comply with EU rules; agreement by all current member states and the European Parliament before you actually join.

Nothing about shortcuts for rejoiners, note.

As the Ukrainian case has shown, even with massive good will and pressing exigencies, the accession process isn’t fast for anyone because the legal obligations on the EU institutions are very substantial (admittedly by their own choice, but still a choice they are now bound to).

So any ‘rejoining’ by the UK would be legally just ‘joining’.

The political bits

Absent any legal shortcut, the UK would face a full accession process. For reference, Finland holds the record for the speediest process, with 34 months between applying and becoming a member state.

Finland is a useful counterpoint in this case, because – like the UK – a lot of its regulatory system and economic structures were already well-aligned with the EU’s. The EU demands as much adaptation to its norms before joining as possible, mainly because that’s when it has the most leverage. The UK has diverged to some extent, but not that much.

So in those terms, it’s not such a stretch, and certainly a stretch that will likely only increase with time, given the nature of regulatory drift.

But the politics is much more of an issue.

Finland was at the time coming out of its Cold War neutrality and engaging in a significant shift of state policy that had a broad consensus underpinning it in both public opinion and party politics (not complete certainly, but durable). There was minimal doubt about its good faith, as typified by its engagement in the years of negotiating the European Economic Area (EEA) before it switched up to seeking full membership. Remember that the EEA extends most of the EU’s single market and so contains much of the core activity of the EU.

The UK is not Finland, and will not be Finland even if a political party were to support rejoining and won office.

The experience of the period since 2016 – and, arguably, the period of awkward membership before then – has raised many EU concerns about what the UK wants of the organisation. Even with a broadly sympathetic government in office, relations could be tricky, and broadly sympathetic governments were rarely in office.

From the EU’s perspective, it will not be the regulatory side of things that is the sticking point, but the politics.

Most bluntly, what is the guarantee that a newly rejoining UK won’t go around the whole cycle again and leave once more? It’s evident that the EU still provokes much interest/attention/anger in the public and the political debates, so even if much of the steam has blown off, the demonstration of where this can all lead gives much pause for thought.

And all of this is before we enter into discussions about how a rejoining UK wouldn’t get the same opt-outs it used to have, or about how the budget is financed without the old rebate system. Or about how far a pro-membership British government is prepared to defend its policy.

So, not now

If this sounds very downbeat, then it’s also not to say that rejoining is impossible. As the past year has shown us, it is clear that Europe is in a time of flux and judgements can (and will) shift as events unfold.

But for a British government to start to treat rejoining as a proposition it seriously wishes to pursue, it will also have to put a long of work into addressing the gap in trust with the EU and into building a national consensus that this is a desirable and advantageous policy. Each of these two arms needs the other to work.

And as long as political parties in this country struggle to talk about European integration and how it relates to the UK’s ambitions that will not happen.

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