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Declaration of a Peaceful Revolution

Could Britain rejoin the EU? It seems like a hopelessly lost cause – but so did leaving | Brexit

Have I mentioned the man in the egg-stained tie? I first spotted him at Tory party conferences two decades ago. A forlorn figure – mocked even by his fellow Conservatives – he stood at the back of fringe meetings, armed with a plastic bag full of leaflets, leaping to his feet to offer “more of a comment than a question”, uniting the room in a collective groan. You’d see him at most political events; he was often in the Question Time audience. His obsession was Europe and the supposed tyranny of Brussels.

Nobody wanted to be the man in the egg-stained tie. He was a bore and an object of derision. Yet today that man is celebrating a victory, one that, at the turn of this century, would have seemed like the stuff of laughably improbable fantasy. Against all odds, he got his way: the new year begins with Britain having completed its exit from the European Union. What was once the quixotic cause of anoraks and obsessives – to overturn a settled decision on Britain’s relationship with Europe – has proved to be among the most effective political movements in the country’s history. For pro-Europeans, that movement ensured the start of this new year is tinged with regret, even longing, for what’s been lost.

All of which prompts a question. Could the trick be repeated by those who lament it most? Could Britain’s pro-Europeans do to the 2016 vote what the anti-Europeans eventually did to the 1975 one and reverse it? Is it conceivable that Britain might one day rejoin the European bloc it has now left?

The conventional wisdom says no. People are thoroughly fed up with the issue: note this week’s polling, which showed Britons simultaneously urging MPs to vote for Boris Johnson’s deal even as a hefty majority of those same Britons couldn’t say whether the deal was good or bad. They just wanted the whole saga over with, yearning for an end to an argument that had split the country and consumed four and a half years of our energies.

What of the 6.4% shrinkage in GDP per person that is coming our way over the next 10 years, thanks to Brexit? It won’t cut through, and not only because any immediate economic pain in 2021 can be conveniently blamed on the pandemic of 2020. It’s also that the agony won’t be sudden: thanks to the deal, we did not cycle off a cliff at 11pm on New Year’s Eve. Instead, the coming failure will be of the slow puncture variety, the air seeping out of the economic tyres steadily and over time. The UK economy will grow, but more slowly than if we’d never left. That’s a hard case to sell. As Gordon Brown’s former strategist, Stewart Wood, puts it, “You don’t feel a counterfactual.”

Little wonder that when asked this week by a Spanish newspaper whether a Bre-entry might occur in his lifetime, Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, said no – pointedly adding that he’s 40 years old. He suspects that the probable consequences of Brexit make a return less likely: with those pesky Brits out of the way, the EU27 can get on with ever closer integration, thereby making the European Union of 2040 an even less enticing prospect to federalism-wary Britons than it was in 2016. What’s more, any British attempt to rejoin the club would not be on the bespoke terms we used to enjoy: if we want to come back, we’ll have to do so without the once-cherished, Thatcher-negotiated cash rebate and by agreeing to join the euro, a bridge too far even for some committed remainers. As for the generation that would have voted to stay in 2016 but never got the chance, they’ll soon move on: other issues will assume greater priority, starting with the climate crisis.

The most ardent pro-Europeans accept one core part of that view: it won’t be economics that wins it for rejoin. They are not braced for a rerun of the stagnation and decline that led post-imperial, 1970s Britain to conclude it had become the economic sick man of Europe and needed to team up with its neighbours.

Instead, they expect – or hope – that the argument might be won generationally and culturally, as young people see their peers in Germany, France or Spain move freely across the continent and demand that same right for themselves. They picture the young Brit who will now need a hard-to-get visa to work as, say, a holiday rep in Italy or chef in Portugal, or the would-be student barred from the Erasmus exchange programme.

Hassle could be a big factor. At the most trivial end, it’s the holidaymaker now herded into the longer queue at the airport or burdened with the bother of health insurance and pet passports where there used to be none. More serious will be the 215m additional customs forms a year, costing UK businesses an estimated £7bn, along with myriad other checks – border, rules-of-origin and veterinary – that didn’t exist when we were in the single market and customs union. Witness the Gloucester-based exporter of eels who, having voted leave, now discovers that his continental customers will have to produce “a raft of documentation” to buy his product: far easier for them to buy from an EU-based supplier instead. Every bureaucratic irritation, every job lost, will plant the thought: maybe we’d be better off in than out.

Wood wonders if elite, including even Conservative, opinion will shift in the coming decades as we discover it’s cold outside – that the Americans don’t give us much attention, that in reality there is no “Anglosphere” to replace the EU as our obvious home. We’d have lost our seat at the grownups’ table and, with it, our clear place in the world. Theoretical sovereignty might be a thin comfort blanket to a nation that feels diminished and “marooned”.

Nor will Brexit deliver its most basic, if disingenuous, promise: to have resolved the great European question once and for all. On the contrary, negotiations with Brussels will be a permanent fixture, not least because Johnson’s trade deal does not cover all of Britain’s trade – excluding, among other things, the 80% of Britain’s economy made up of services. “Europe” will remain a live issue, as it has for centuries, and that will give rejoin an opening – not today, perhaps not soon, but eventually.

The easy assumption is that this question has been settled for a generation or more. But politics moves faster now. The case for a second Scottish independence referendum is looking increasingly hard to resist, less than seven years after that issue was also supposedly settled for a generation. (If an independent Scotland rejoins the EU, alongside a Northern Ireland that is already half-in, then the question will press on England and Wales all the harder.)

To be sure, many of these arguments – about red tape or Britain’s rightful place in the world – might seem hopelessly abstract or obscure, just as the request that the EU27 “keep the light on” for our eventual return might seem hopelessly romantic. But even apparently lost causes can prevail in the end. Just ask the man in the egg-stained tie.

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