NewsEuropeCan the UK rejoin the European Union?

Can the UK rejoin the European Union?

Economists have an old joke that they have brought up again in debates lately: there are at most five people in the world who understand money. Let me borrow this comment: in the UK there are at most five people who understand the European Union. I mean really understand it, not the rosy or resentful caricatures of the EU that swirl in the heads of the supporters of the permanence and the opponents of it.

Current polls in the UK tell us that around 60% of those interviewed think that Brexit was a mistake, which in turn tells us that the UK needs to face why this is so. But regardless of your point of view, be careful not to jump to false reverse conclusions. That 60% think that Brexit was a mistake does not mean that 60% want to return to the European Union.

I hear the first murmurs of a campaign for Europe. My advice to the EU Team would be to use your time wisely. I would tell them not to pick up where they left off in 2019. In particular, don’t think about the deal that they can get, and don’t even frame it in terms of a transactional relationship. Let them instead think about what they want the EU to do and how they want the UK to contribute to it. Last time it wasn’t like that.

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The UK had an opt-out clause from the euro and the Schengen zone of free movement. It also had a kind of non-participation clause in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and in everything related to internal security and justice. In its last 20 years of membership in the Union, it was not really a full member.

By the time the UK reapplies for membership, the European Union will have made progress in several policy areas. It is unlikely that London will regain its status as the financial center of the euro zone. Frankfurt and Paris have taken part of the London business. Milan is fast approaching. I well remember that Mario Draghi, when he was president of the European Central Bank (ECB), focused on hindering the position of the British capital as the financial core of the eurozone. The ECB thought it foolish for the world’s second largest currency area to depend on a center outside its territory. It can be assumed that the banking institution will insist that the United Kingdom must join the euro if it wants to return to the Union. Has the EU Team even thought about it?

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Almost certainly, France will emphasize that the UK joins the Union’s policies on immigration and home affairs. Why would France want an external border on its northern coast when it can outsource the problem to the UK?

We should remember that the EU did not offer the UK its opt-outs willingly. The United Kingdom blackmailed it into granting them by threatening to veto successive revisions to the Union Treaty, beginning with Maastricht in the early 1990s. But when the UK applies for reinstatement, the tables will have turned. Each of the current 27 Member States will have the right to veto their accession.

There may be options other than membership. Andrew Duff, a former MEP and undoubtedly one of the five Britons who understand the European Union, has been calling for a reform of the European treaties for some time to make the various relations of the EU with third countries come together in a single associated form of membership. I find this proposal very appealing, if only because it would open up the most realistic path I can think of for the UK to rejoin the Union. Unfortunately, the EU is currently not moving in that direction.

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The alternative would be the Norwegian option, but the UK would again be subject to European law, would be forced to reintroduce freedom of movement, and would not be able to participate in any decision. I proposed it as a temporary solution after Brexit. However, it is unsuitable as a permanent regime for a large country wanting to join the EU.

So, if there is ever another referendum, the question will not be about regrets, but about whether the UK should become a full member of the EU with its pros and cons. I am not sure that the EU Team has any chance of winning such a consultation, unless it starts to think seriously about the Union as such. The EU would also have to change. Likewise, it would be a mistake to reduce the objective only to reincorporation. The last thing anyone would want is for the UK to rejoin only to leave again after a few years.


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