Bobby McDonagh / Jul 2020
Don’t mention the war. Basil Fawlty’s famous exhortation captures in a nutshell the natural human reluctance to mention indelicate subjects in front of others, perhaps a particularly English characteristic. Nevertheless, it seems timely, six months after the UK’s departure from the European Union, to mention the hope that dares not speak its name, namely that one day Britain may reconsider its decision to leave the EU. After all, it occurred to me when I was invited to write this article about Brexit that the only alternatives would have been either a new riff on the folly of Brexit itself or some new angle on the Johnson Government’s insouciance about Britain’s real interests in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
That it should fall to a former Irish diplomat to broach this delicate theme is both appropriate and necessary. Appropriate because of Ireland’s friendship with its nearest neighbour; and because Ireland, of all 27 EU Member States, has the greatest interest in Britain’s eventual return to our shared European enterprise. Necessary because, in the UK itself, the stars are not currently aligned in a way that enables the issue to be raised. The Labour Party, under leadership which, had it been in place in 2016 would have prevented Brexit, sees no advantage for the moment in poking a sleeping dog; the SNP, although opposed to Brexit, recognizes it as its most important wedge in pressing the case for Scottish independence; and the Conservative Party is for now effectively in the hands of Dominic Cummings, strangely not even a member of the party. There is also an understandable reluctance in wider society to revisit the divisiveness of recent years.
It would be both premature and counterproductive to begin planning now a campaign for another European referendum. But it is equally essential that British pro-Europeans should not be cowed into submission any more than were the Eurosceptics who, having lost the UK’s 1975 European referendum, spent the next four decades working unashamedly to overturn it. For the moment, the important thing is to recognize that truth is not defined by tabloids and that the legitimacy of political aspiration is not annulled by any single pronouncement by the electorate.
For the British people, the road back towards Europe is an unpredictable and difficult one. There will be immense challenges, including the relentless propagation of a false European narrative by much of the media. Nor, of course, can a positive response from the EU itself be taken for granted.
However, it seems to me that, while it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU within a decade, it is equally unlikely that the issue will be not be firmly back on Britain’s political agenda within two decades. There are six reasons for this.
First, the British public remains split down the middle, polls suggesting that a majority no longer wish to leave the European Union. With an overwhelming majority of young people supporting EU membership, the dramatic correlation between age and attitudes should gradually deepen its effect.
Second, basic national interests will become increasingly obvious. Britain outside the EU will become weaker economically. Its influence is already declining. Brexiteers can splutter into their porridge as much as they like, but they will not be able to evade emerging reality as easily as they dismiss the experts who, by an overwhelming majority, have struggled unsuccessfully for rational analysis to prevail against simplistic Brexit sloganeering.
Third, the falsehoods of the Leave campaign will become increasingly clear. Brexit, as it turns out, has not been about strengthening the British Parliament or British courts. It will not enable the UK to go global in any meaningful way. Leaving the EU has already cost Britain more money than the sum of all of its net EU budgetary contributions over half a century.
Fourth, like Mark Twain’s death, reports of the demise of the European Union have been greatly exaggerated. The EU remains beset by the challenges inherent in a turbulent world and in pooling aspects of sovereignty between twenty-seven sovereign democracies. However, as the impressive EU budgetary agreement in July underlined, the EU will continue to move forward.
Fifth, the significant possibility that Russian interference got Brexit over the line in 2016 is sufficient reason in itself for the decision to be revisited. Even some of the Conservatives MPs, now understandably exercised about Chinese influence, must surely recognize that privately.
Finally, the UK’s natural home, in terms of values, interests and simple geography, will always be with its European neighbours.
It is highly unfashionable to refer to the possibility of Brexit being revisited. For some, the idea is objectionable or even absurd. Like Basil Fawlty and the war, I’ve mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.