Roads to re-entry Part 3: Beyond division – truth or surrender?

Photo by Ian Cylkowski

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
…Those opposèd eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.

Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 2. I, 1.

Gina Miller and others (including influential voices in the Labour party) now say: Brexit is done, the Remainer-Leaver debate is over, a divided country cannot heal or advance, the coming period must be one of reconciliation, mutual respect and restored understanding. Ex-Remainers are advised that they must be humbler, less contrarian and argumentative, more open and attentive to views of those outside their bubble; they must do a lot of listening and seek to reclaim trust by ‘holding the government to account’ on non-Brexit issues, in order at some point to regain the right for their own message to once again be heard. In a word, they must stop being insistently and conspicuously ‘Remoaners’.  The underlying, and heavily moralising presumption here is that the things which Remainers must learn about and listen to are the real-life experiences and dissatisfactions of most other people, hardships and privations of which Remainers are ignorant as a class, but concerning which we are told that as a relatively privileged group they are justly liable to the anger of ordinary people, who hold them complicit in the plight of the disadvantaged.

For those who like Starmer are now ostentatiously engaged in intensive new exercises of listening to the people, the most authentic and oracular source of popular voice in these discussions tends to be the reported views of ex-Labour, pro-Leave swing voters in the northern ‘Red/Blue Wall’ seats. Remainers, in this discourse, are implicitly characterised and labelled as Vote Leave discourse has labelled them: they are the ‘liberal elite’. If Remainers are educated, articulate and publicly active, they are likely to be found to share the sins of that other despised group, the ‘political class’. For these sinners, salvation is indicated as lying through repentance and the renunciation of contrarian opinion.  Seldom discussed in this kind of analysis (fuelled by intensive local polling and focus grouping) is the possibility that the mind of the Red Wall people may have been saturated, courtesy of the actual rich men in this game, with FB memes and micro-targeted lies, delivered by one of the most intensive media and social media campaigns ever conducted in a UK general election.

Following the years of Brexit stress since 2016, many pro-Europeans have fallen into, and are now stuck in a heteronomous mindset. Heteronomy is the opposite of autonomy – it is the situation where someone or something else, some other, is in control of our actions. Someone else decides if we have permission to speak, someone else decides if we have the right to be heard, or what we have to do to get the right to be heard, someone else decides what our words and actions mean, someone else lays traps for us so that our words and actions will have effects which harm us. We thus end up as frightened and abused, verbally battered victims, reduced to abusing each other, brainwashing ourselves and hiding from Brexiter media. In our thinking, Starmer is clever to say nothing against Brexit, because if he did, he would be blamed as a saboteur. We lacerate ourselves – or rather, we lacerate each other, our fellow co-campaigners, for hiding in the unreal, inauthentic world of our own echo chamber/bubble, not the authentic real world of others.

Over four years we have made ourselves accomplished masters of defeatism in the face of populism.

We actually internalise the core Trumpian formula, as cited by the political scientist and populism expert Jan-Werner Muller: “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.” We – in our own eyes, as well as those of the populists – are ‘the other people’ who ‘don’t mean anything’, non-people who have no access to real experience and whose words are vain.

There is a possible tragic danger of self-betrayal in this willingness to digest defeat and to strive for new consensus and reconciliation with a dominant adversary. Precisely at the moment when truth and reality – the emerging facts of an obstructed border, damaged industries and a defective deal – confirm or outdo our ‘project fear’ warnings and give the lie to the false promises of Brexiters, we decide that the reality of Brexiter hegemony requires us to climb gracefully aboard the doomed vehicle, and by our timidity forgo our chance and duty to mitigate what has happened and push for a better future.

Later than we think?

Some of us have recently shared the optimistic thought that the present moment may be the nadir of the Brexit story, and that the only way ahead from here has to upward.  Would that it were so. The optimist thinks we are in the worst of possible worlds, the pessimist fears the optimist may be mistaken.  I see a few reasons to doubt our friends’ hopeful opinion. One is that the owners of Brexit didn’t invest so much in this operation just to end up where we are now. To those who paid for it, Brexit is a gift which is intended to keep on giving. Left unchallenged, the nature of the current regime will propel it to continue dismantling democracy and the rule of law, widen its political hegemony, expand the kleptocracy and advance its sponsors’ right-wing agenda.

 A flaw in the ‘things can only get better’ model is that it assumes there is some benign self-righting tendency in our polity and that pro-European regime opponents can afford to bide their time until our moment comes. People are still assuming they can count on a pendulum effect, but this assumption may be mistaken.   If we wait around for a more favourable moment to take a stand, others may take the opportunity to arrange that such a moment will never come.

Roads to re-entry

Wasted time offers the evil the chance to continue their work. We need a sense of urgency, not relaxed leisure. Given the handicap of starting from where we are, we should map the shortest road to rejoin and then traverse it as quickly as possible. This pathway may involve but will not be limited to a series of incremental improvements and repairs to our EU deal as of 1 January 2021, advancements driven by the painful emerging features and consequences of Johnson’s deal and available to us within the options for change built into the current FTA framework. This is the notion of ‘building back’, ‘brick by brick’, which (in a relatively favourable scenario) could patiently and consensually prepare the ground, in opinion and fact, for the logical sequel, a full-scale bid to rejoin. While speaking hopefully of a progressive consensual dynamic in which former Remainers and Leavers might work together towards agreed improvements to UK-EU relations,  we need also to be alert to the dangerous scope in the review process for change in the opposite direction, where Brexiters may continue to push for their true desire, a purer and deeper version of UK-EU separation.

The road to rejoin could but does necessarily need to involve a series of intermediate stages through associate status or membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. Given clear consensus and will, re-entry could be done in a single step, perhaps subject to some standard  arrangements for phasing-in certain specific elements. The process which is liable to take some time is the building of majority consensus and political will to seek re-entry, plus of course the parliamentary means to deliver it.

The relevant Lisbon treaty provision for Brexit was Article 50, for re-entry it is Article 49, plus the 1993 Copenhagen criteria.  It will be worth building up public familiarity and understanding of Article 49 and the criteria sooner rather than later. You could print the article on a T-shirt.  It makes no distinction between entry and re-entry. Almost certainly it wasn’t drafted with re-entry in mind, just as Article 50 was never designed to be used. Getting people thinking about the process and criteria will be useful in starting to normalise it as a serious possible future, which will in turn be a step towards seeing it as a natural and desirable, indeed an inevitable return destination. Our historical stupidity does not merit the homage of avoidable prolongation.

The serious, core process which needs to be advanced is an evolution in public mentality, a campaign of public education, and public dialogue with major national stakeholders, including business, industries, and workforces.

Many key industry and non-governmental institutions have been and may still be inhibited and disqualified from taking an outright pro-EU position, though this situation may not be set in stone. The experience and cost of Brexit may have persuaded some to be more vocal about existential hazards facing them as a consequence of inept, reckless and ideologically driven government decisions.

The existing Pro-European campaigning organisations are the available components of what should be a national, bipartisan civil society movement for UK re-entry to the EU. A collegiate and diverse movement with vigour and public presence may be more effective than a monolithic entity with homogenised messages and narrative.

In given circumstances, this goal cannot be delivered without a solid coalition of support of the progressive political parties committed to the objective. In terms of Labour and LibDems, especially for Labour, this is a journey which requires some rethinking, campaigning and consultation with members, supporters and target voters. Pro-European campaign work, operating both within and across the parties, must help plot pathways for political  parties to gain confidence and permission to move via agreed steps towards a commitment to rejoin.

The People’s Vote campaign had mixed experiences and results in working with and across the political parties. Any cross-party movement has to contend with structural political facts and powerful forces which it does not control, and which may well be liable to obstruct, divert or capture its strategy. Femi Oluwole among others has convincingly argued that a shared commitment to voting reform is the necessary condition for a solid cross-party electoral tactical voting pact which could in turn deliver a clear majority at the next election for progress towards EU re-entry.  These party-specific issues have to be challenged in parallel to the wider pathway in the arena of public opinion towards securing a national  consensus in favour of re-entry.

Building a movement to rejoin

The pro-European networks need to be enablers of a diverse, inclusive citizens’ Rejoin movement which is ambitious, resolute and effective. How will they do this?

A movement needs a defining vision to give it identity and direction.

A vision is needed. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

Our vision of the future must be strong, clear, and public: the UK needs to rejoin the EU, by 2030, and sooner if possible.We must state this without apologies or excuses. This is what we are about. This is not all that needs to be done, but this is what we as a movement are specifically here for.

The focus and phasing of our campaigning will need to be diverse, nuanced and adjusted to the public mood. But we need to be audible.People need to know we are there.We represent this future.Our visible presence will let people know another future is possible, and will encourage those who share our will  to make it happen.
We need to be publicly active starting now. We should intelligently fit the tone and pitch of our message to current circumstances, but we should not wait on events; we should not wait for a lucky break.to grant us permission to be heard.

We need a narrative of who we are, the situation we are in, how we got here, where we need to get to and how: a ten-year national and campaign agenda, written by us and not by other people.

The strands of narrative which translate the vision into plans will be multiple:

  • political struggle to rescue our state’s democracy from kleptocrat populism –  in cooperation with similar struggles in the EU, the USA and elsewhere. This is the condition for everything else – we should not be paralysed with fear, but the danger is real and must not be ignored.
  • forming a majority: aninclusive campaign and dialogues engaging the full breadth of civil society, stakeholders, business, industry. Dialogue should be about mutual truth-telling, not splitting the difference between truth and lies.  Building a majority for EU re-entry over the next years should be closely linked to urgent work for economic rescue and repair, including work to mitigate and repair, as soon and as far as possible, the defective and damaging UK-EU agreement which has just been signed.
  • an approach to working with the political parties and their internal processes of rejoin policy development, and building vital commitments to PR, electoral alliances and tactical voting.
  • a clear vision of the rejoin process itself as defined in Article 49 and its associated criteria, developed in dialogue with EU actors. Article 49 needs to be something everyone knows about. The UK has some issues to address but pro-Europeans don’t need to subject ourselves to decades of isolation in exile, penance and relative decline, which might not do us any good. Nor should we take Blair’s latest bad advice to undertake a long course of splendidly isolated national bodybuilding. AUK that has a clear will to rejoin is likely to be a UK which the EU is willing to welcome back. National reform can run alongside steps towards re-entry. But we shouldn’t take goodwill and a welcome back for granted. We should be continuously discussing this with the EU27+, listening to wise advice and building our support base for re-entry within the Union.
  • In preparation for re-entry, we need to develop closer dialogues with key allied democratic actors in EU states – on dealing with common threats and adversaries, sharing political strengths and experience of successes and failures, reinforcing our sense of shared values, developing a shared agenda.

Through force of unwelcome circumstance, along the path to a serious defeat we have built in the UK the largest pro-European movement in Europe. Our opponents and their media stooges would like nothing better than to see this movement wither away and eat itself in recrimination, defeatism and self-doubt. We have a duty to ensure that their wishes are frustrated. For our friends in the UK, Europe and beyond, we need to represent a renewal of … what was that phrase? … the audacity of hope.

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