A serious misconception we should avoid is that there is a deep-rooted antagonism or alienation between the British and the EU nations which we must work together to overcome and reconcile as a precursor to any possible re-entry.
There has without a doubt been an attempt to manufacture such antagonism on the part of Brexiter politicians and media. Fortunately, these efforts have been so transparent that the effectiveness to date is limited. However, without a change in UK political culture that puts an end to these behaviours, EU members may well not welcome a UK re-entry. Also without such a change, the UK itself would be unlikely to seek re-entry in the first place. The solution of this problem is a task for the UK; the only question is whether and how dialogues and alliances between pro-democratic UK and EU actors and voices (as well as those of other countries with similar problems) can contribute to and accelerate this process.
We need to take away the existing de facto coercive and veto powers from the minority of the hardline Brexiters and their onshore and offshore sponsors. This in turn requires the restoration of a form of political civility which remains still fairly robustly effective in EU countries and was equally so in the UK (which indeed enjoyed a reputation as an exemplar in these values) before Brexit.
Remain voters are subject to two serious temptations – one is to internalise the Brexiters’ delegitimising abuse, and to consider their defeat and failure in some sense a deserved judgement on their social disconnection or their weakness of conviction or purpose; the other is to overestimate the moral certainty and conviction of pro-Leave sentiment in the general population. Ironically, these two weaknesses show not so much, as we are so often told and so often tell ourselves, that Remainers live in a closed self- referential and self-echoing bubble, but that they are all too receptive to skilfully targeted messages from the other side whose intent is to break their will to resist and contest.
The third defeatist temptation to which Remainers are particularly liable is to set the bar of our required national repentance, rebirth and reform to such a high level as to be unattainable in most of our lifetime, if indeed human frailty and the laws of political gravity would ever allow it to be reached.
This then enables the confident conclusion that only after decades or generations will there be clear evidence of our thorough and reliable amendment be sufficient to convince EU members to readmit the UK to their Union.
In its short lifetime the Remain movement has become a vivarium of every possible variant of self-harming thought: defeatist doubt, kamikaze disaster politics, and the pessimism of other-wordly purism. Remainers have nothing more to fear than their timidity – with the possible exception of the treacherous advice of unreliable pundits and self-styled peacemakers.
What is actually required to make the UK capable of and acceptable for EU re-entry?
The basic criteria are set out in Article 49 of the Lisbon treaty and associated laws and guidelines. In brief summary the candidate state must by its due constitutional process decide democratically to apply and must be a stable democracy and economy committed to the rule of law, including international law, and other core values; it must also consent within an agreed period to adopt and implement in its domestic law the Union’s acquis. The Council has the discretion to define and apply more specific criteria in each given case.
What, roughly speaking, would need to happen in the UK for these conditions to be seen to be met?
The EU is law-based but pragmatic. It does not see itself as a communion of the saints. Its members have dark pages in their history and in several cases dark shadows over their present democratic health. The European institutions have not always acted wisely and well.
The Union would not, in my view, insist in its criteria for UK re-entry on setting the bar of virtue impossibly high. It would make a pragmatic judgement weighing the benefits and risks of UK membership in a range of domains from military and scientific capacity to cultural creativity, governance and accountability.
I suspect however that the EU members might look for some evidence that the UK polity which chose and executed Brexit was not motivated to rejoin solely by economic or political failure or by some ephemeral combination of domestic political motives and forces. It would in essence need to see some evidence that the UK had indeed changed its mind, and that it had indeed, in certain key respects, actually changed, renewed and restored itself. To take one painfully obvious criterion, it would need some confidence that the UK was a state committed to the rule of law. And it would be wise and right to do so.
Of course it would be wrong for us to assume widespread acceptance that the UK is inevitably under an irresistible obligation or compulsion to seek re-entry; we know for one thing that the terms of re-entry will differ from the terms the UK (uniquely) enjoyed before it left. We therefore cannot assume that the UK will be motivated to transform itself solely for the purpose of rejoining the EU.
The key point I want to suggest is that the series of national reassessments and renewals which would make possible the formation of a concerted democratic will to rejoin coincide in large part with the changes which might satisfy the EU’s criteria for readmission. One can say that these are changes which, even absent the will or possibility to rejoin, patriotic democratic citizens ought in any case to see as urgent and necessary tasks. One needs also to say that these changes may be extremely difficult if not impossible to accomplish if another pro-Brexit government is (re)elected in 2024.
Before looking a bit more about the opportunities and challenges for progressive paths of renewal and preparation for re-entry, we need to take into account some dangers and risks of our current situation. In the Putin-Trump-Johnson system, corruption, the theft of public goods, is a political method as well as a business model. The Brexiter doctrine of sovereignty is a license for state crime (and a product of ideologists and political technologists of the Russian state).
It was perfectly logical for the final triumph of this sovereignty to coincide with the ennobling of a Baron of Siberia. The 16th century developed a nation of absolute state sovereignty unchecked by exterior restraints such as the jurisdiction of Pope or Emperor. The absolute monarch is emperor in his own domain, and his power is unchecked by laws – legibus solutus. Post-Brexit UK law gives the government so-called Henry VIII powers with sweeping executive discretion immune from parliamentary supervision and constraint. It simply happens that this supreme sovereign is also a made man on Putin’s payroll.
The alarming thing about the massive corruption in the current vast UK programme of Covid-19 and other healthcare-related procurement expenditure is that it may amount to a crossing of the Rubicon, a move beyond the point at which a democratic transfer of power remains an acceptable risk for beneficiaries of state corruption who might be liable to future investigation and retribution. Trump’s desperate last minute coup attempt is a response to precisely of this type of perceived hazard.
There are three required strands of future action ahead of rejoining the EU:
- the political detoxification and reform of the UK – alongside responses to comparable challenges elsewhere
- the process of ensuring, preparing and implementing UK re-entry to Europe
- strategic dialogues and collaborations between UK and EU civil societies.
There are important synergies between all three strands, but they also have specific things to work on and do.
- There needs to be a process internal to the UK national community which respects the autonomy of the national community as author of its choices and decisions.
- The process of detoxification and reform of UK politics could have benign lessons and benefits for the solution of similar problems elsewhere.
- Appropriate forms of dialogue with EU actors can have a constructive influence on the UK internal conversation (and strengthen UK pro-democratic voices).
- Appropriate forms of dialogue with EU actors can promote readiness for re-entry in both UK and EU, while also helping to more effectively address shared threats from anti-democratic and populist forces.
There is much work to do.
Part 3 coming soon…