Wolfgang Munchau: Here’s how to get the Brits back in

The battle for Britain in Europe is still worth fighting, and now may be the best time to start

If you ask people outside the UK what the three most important characteristics of the EU are, the single market and the customs union would probably not be on that list. Photograph: Getty Images

If you ask people outside the UK what the three most important characteristics of the EU are, the single market and the customs union would probably not be on that list. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The battle for Britain in Europe is still worth fighting, and now may be the best time to start. You might say that it is a bit mad to talk about this less than a week after Theresa May, the UK prime minister, triggered the two-year joyride towards Brexit. So here it is: my advice to pro-Europeans in the UK on how to get back into the EU. And this is for real, not a belated April fools joke.

First of all, accept the referendum result, and that Brexit is going to happen. No, there will not be a second referendum. Whatever small probability of a reversal there might have been between June 23rd, 2016, and March 29th, 2017, it has now gone. The triggering of article 50 has settled the issue. And, yes, I am aware of the legal challenges on the reversibility of the process. They do not matter politically. Forget it. Move on.

My second piece of advice follows directly from the first. Stop being angry. Stop behaving as though you are still campaigning. And stop complaining that stupid voters chose to believe the lies of the Brexiters and not your own more sophisticated lies.

You might want to reflect on the wisdom of basing a campaign on economic forecasts that are prone to revision within a few months. And you might want to reflect on the optimism of investors.

Expectations

Note that it will become harder to isolate the Brexit effect if the economy were to weaken in the future. There is thus no point in doubling down with economic arguments.

My third piece of advice would be to take your opponents more seriously. Not everybody you disagree with is irrational. Not everyone who votes for Donald Trump or Brexit is stupid.

May’s government may not have been prepared for Brexit in the months after the referendum. But it is now, and many of you Remainers are not. I know many Remainers who thought that the country would soon regret its decision. The Brexiters outsmarted you twice: during the campaign and afterwards.

My fourth piece of advice is to cool your outrage about your government’s negotiation stance in the forthcoming exit talks. Both sides will fight with their gloves off. This is what the EU does.

We know that the article 50 process is stacked heavily against the country that is leaving. The only chance to level the playing field is a credible commitment to walk out without a deal. There is logic to May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Her next task is to make her threat credible. Remember what happened to the Greeks who bluffed about euro exit?

Full Monty

If the UK ever decides to rejoin, it would have to do so under article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. That would be the full Monty – with the euro, the Schengen zone, EU involvement in home affairs, no opt-outs, and no budget rebates. If you want to get back you will be joining an organisation that you were never really a part of on full membership terms.

If you ask people outside the UK what the three most important characteristics of the EU are, the single market and the customs union would probably not be on that list. They are not on mine. When you decide to rejoin the EU make sure that they are not on yours either. Do not start your renewed campaign as a business lobbying exercise. Make it a campaign about citizens, not the City.

For that you will need to broaden your argument. Listen to people like the young man at one of those recent anti-Brexit demonstrations in London who talked about the EU in rather different terms than the pro-Remain campaigners did last year.

Identity

People may scoff at what they might think of as identity nonsense. The pro-EU campaign did not want to touch the subject with a barge pole, preferring its doomed message on the economy. There has never been a better time to challenge conventional wisdom than after such a disaster.

I am not certain whether a campaign to coax Britain back into the EU could succeed. But if it were to then these factors would be the reason, not because the British economy is doing worse outside the single market or because a large bank relocates some back-office staff to Frankfurt. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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