“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man” – Heraclitus
Fifty years of membership, and much water has passed under the bridge. The EU is not what the EEC was, not what we joined. Largely then an intergovernmentally ruled common market, albeit aspiring to political and economic integration, it has evolved and is still evolving into a genuine union, governed collectively, though still imperfect.
Brexit has also contributed to that continuing evolution, in the loss of a major member and in the difficult process of divorce. And so, were the UK to contemplate rejoining, it would rejoin an organisation much different from that which it originally signed up to, and significantly different from that which it left. Would “rejoining” even be the right word?
Crucially, moreover, the member states would also insist on new membership terms that would certainly deny the UK the exceptionalism that characterised aspects of its former membership – not least in its rejection of the single currency (the joining of which is still vigorously opposed across the British political spectrum).
Re-accession talks would be long and difficult, as would realignment with the EU “acquis”, the corpus of EU law and common administrative procedures that bind the single market, and divergence from which, much vaunted by London as a key objective and advantage of Brexit, has proceeded apace in the last two years.
In monitoring UK-EU legislative divergence in the last six months alone, the think tank UK in a Changing Europe finds that while prime minister Rishi Sunak has presided over a “significant reduction in ‘active divergence’” from the Johnson era, there have been six cases of active divergence (where the UK, or some part of it changes its rules), and 13 of passive divergence (where the EU changes its rules and the UK, or some part of it, does not follow). These range from food to environment to state aid rules.
Yet “rejoining “ is not, in theory, out of the question. It is again being promoted by Remainers who bitterly complain at Labour’s unwillingness to embrace the cause. Polling suggests they have a new wind in their sails, that the public mood has swung very significantly. Just one in three voters (33per cent), YouGov found in its latest polls, believes that “in hindsight” the decision to leave was right. Well over half (55per cent) believe it was wrong, and 59 per cent now say they would vote to rejoin the EU.
According to new polling for UK in a Changing Europe, as many as one in three of those who voted leave in 2016 accept the overwhelming economic consensus that Britain’s economy is weaker as a result of Brexit. Polling guru Prof John Curtice estimates that a little less than three-quarters (74 per cent) of leave supporters would vote to stay out but that nearly four in five (78 per cent) of voters aged 18 to 24 would vote to rejoin the EU.
The figures might seem to encourage Labour to shift its position to support reaccession. The party, however, remains deeply bruised by the Brexit vote and the subsequent defection to the Tories of Brexit-supporting heartland constituencies in the north, the so-called “red wall” seats. Although many voters there now see Brexit as a mistake and are likely to return to the party whether or not it changes its position, troubling numbers remain unconvinced and are likely to be very hostile to any reopening of the membership issue.
Voters may be suffering buyer’s remorse, but will not take kindly to being second-guessed by another poll
A cautious Keir Starmer is likely to fight the next election on an anti-rejoin platform – “make Brexit work” – despite a majority of rejoin support within his party. The prospect of getting another referendum is slim to nil.
In reality, despite the new mood, public opinion obstacles to rejoining remain largely at this time insuperable. While a referendum vote to reapply might be passed, it is far less likely that, after difficult accession discussions involving swallowing objections to the single currency and other aspects of the new Europe, the same yes consensus would be achievable.
It is also likely that even to begin the arduous business of accession talks, EU member states would require evidence that any application is likely to secure broad popular support and a fair wind. That is still a very remote possibility.
Heraclitus has the challenge in a nutshell. The clock of history cannot simply be turned back. Domestic politics has moved on. Voters may be suffering buyer’s remorse, but will not take kindly to being second-guessed by another poll. And the UK’s former partners – it takes two to tango – will not embrace with any enthusiasm a new reaccession process with a once-difficult partner, and certainly not on any easier terms.
Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times