Brexit shifted the landscape. Life after the EU is now our new reality. Any future campaign to rejoin will be a whole different beast from 2016.
The new normal …
Defending the status quo is tough, especially to those who crave change. In any future referendum on EU membership, should the UK vote to stay out, the only thing that would change would be the volume of voices calling for rejoin. But the economy would remain stagnant, and the EU would still be harder to get to for travel or for work. Staying out has nothing to commend it on its own terms, other than that it preserves Brexit.
And … we now know what Brexit is like. We’ve experienced it stripped of the false promises and lies. Any future rejoin/stay out showdown would pit two defined realities against each other, rather than reality against a fantasy. Of course, the terms of rejoining the EU would have to be negotiated before a public vote could be organised, but the stay out camp can no longer peddle an all-things-to-all-people vision of Brexit like Leave did in 2016, because Brexit is already all around us.
Whilst opinions on EU membership still diverge wildly, even many of its critics have come to realise through lived experience that Brexit represents a bitter pill. For them, though they may have little love for the EU, renewed membership may seem less damaging than Brexit.
Businesses grappling with the complexities of Brexit are unlikely to sit on the sidelines if there’s a chance to return to something approximating our pre-EU departure ease. The allure of ‘rejoin’ is just too potent not to speak up. Despite the potential backlash from taking a political stance, many will choose to voice their support.
The usual suspects are … suspect
Who would lead the ‘stay out’ brigade? The same faces that championed Brexit but failed to deliver? Even the most die-hard Brexit believers feel short-changed by reality, which is why polls show a much larger opposition to our current Brexit than to the idea of Brexit itself. What’s Jacob Rees-Mogg’s pitch going to be? ‘Just four more decades until Brexit pays off. Hang in there!’ Not to mention that voters have also experienced first-hand how some of Brexit’s prominent supporters used the vote to feather their own nests.
In 2016, some saw the referendum as an opportunity to punish the Tories for austerity cuts, but for many, that sentiment faded very quickly, replaced the morning after by ‘Did we really do that?’ followed swiftly by ‘What will it mean?’
The youth surge
Younger voters, given a unique chance to reclaim everything they believe was unjustly taken from their generation, will rally. The current 86/14 split in favour of rejoin among younger voters is likely to widen as Brexit continues to impact their lives. Complacency, in the form of ‘my vote doesn’t matter’ or ‘remain will win anyway’, was shattered by the result of the 2016 referendum. The second time around, there will be no underestimating the importance of every single vote.
And in the meantime, Brexit’s impacts will continue to unfold, from new travel complexities like ETIAS/EES, to carbon trading rules that will increase the cost of UK exports to the EU. By the time a rejoin vote is on the table, the UK’s predicament will sadly be even more dire than it is to date. The Tories have managed to obfuscate many of Brexit’s impacts by conflating them with the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With any luck, these depressing distractions will be history by the time a rejoin campaign begins, and Brexit’s true after-effects will be readily apparent.
Failure across the political spectrum
Labour can’t make Brexit work. It may tinker around the edges, but without rejoining the single market as a minimum, nothing significant will change. So the public will know that the Tories can’t polish the Brexit turd – and neither can Labour. The grand narrative of 2016’s Brexit referendum – sovereignty, prosperity, independence – has been tested by reality and found wanting. A rejoin campaign could exploit the gulf between the promises of yesteryear and the lived experience of today, highlighting everything that has gone wrong.
Arguments for and against membership of the EU so often seem to boil down to the economic. But EU membership carries with it hundreds of other benefits that can’t be strictly measured in pounds and pence, yet which have real value. A rejoin campaign could dig much deeper into what EU membership really means – as well as reminding people of the merits of things like freedom of movement, participation in the single market, and a renewed influence over EU policies.
The playbook, revised
A rejoin campaign has the advantage of hindsight. Leave’s victory in 2016 signposts the way to craft more effective strategies and engage voters better, and to tackle criticisms and concerns more robustly. We are also much more attuned to the potential for dirty tricks.
Brexit hasn’t covered itself in glory. Even the most fervent pro-Brexit right-wing outlets have struggled mightily to find the positives in Brexit, tapping the same tired tropes again and again and again. There is little they can say to step sentiment in favour of staying out up to a new level. Also, the world of 2016 is not the world of today. Global challenges, from Covid to climate change to geopolitical shifts, have underscored the value of international cooperation. A rejoin campaign could use these shifts to argue the merits of being part of a larger and stronger alliance.
The EU we would be rejoining in the late 2020s or early 2030s isn’t the EU of 2016. Many aspects of its functioning will be far more integrated, from its unified patent system to its Digital Decade initiative that aims to transform the experience of businesses and citizens. So a rejoin campaign wouldn’t only have the merits of EU membership circa 2016 to draw upon, but all the improvements that have come about since then.
Leave voters who’ve changed their minds could be an ace up the rejoin campaign’s sleeve. They’ve wrestled with both sides of the Brexit argument and their stories will be more credible than those offered by Remain voters. It’s one thing to preach to the choir, quite another to convert sceptics. Converts will always be best placed to catalyse a similar conversion in others. They can push the same buttons that persuaded them. Given the right impetus, their voices could be the most powerful in the room.
Any future rejoin campaign is not a rehash of 2016. It’s a new game, with new rules. Brexit is the present, but it doesn’t have to be the future. With fresh voices, shifting public sentiment, and the stark realities of Brexit laid bare, the path to rejoining the EU is a journey of its own. This isn’t about rekindling old battles, it’s about recalibrating for the future. After all, we’re not just talking about a political shift. We’re talking about reclaiming opportunities, mending bridges, and charting a new course for the UK.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a wild ride.