Tuesday 12 September 2023

Rejoining the EU is even more anachronistic than Rule Britannia.


The song Rule Britannia could hardly be more anachronistic. If Britain ever ruled the waves, which perhaps was just about possible to argue in 1740, it certainly does not now. Even in 1916 when Britain still had the largest navy in the world it suffered a tactical defeat at Jutland. But most national anthems are anachronistic.  Those feet probably did not walk upon England’s mountain’s green. But there is something still more anachronistic about the singing of Rule Britannia and that is to do so accompanied by blue and yellow EU flags.

Prior to Britain voting to leave the EU it was rare indeed to see people waving the EU flag. Support for the EU prior to 2016 was moderate. There were no people with berets with EU stars.

I had always assumed that the EU was one of those things that British people grumbled about, but which would never be changed. I never ever thought we would be given a referendum on EU membership. Having been given it I assumed that Remain would win easily.

I voted Leave primarily because I hoped that it would make the SNP’s argument more difficult as it did. The EU is the condition for the possibility of sub national nationalism in the modern world. Leaving I believed was necessary for otherwise Scottish nationalists would eventually realise that they could leave the UK without much changing. The EU would guarantee free movement with the former UK and Scots would have the same rights as before. The choice became do you prefer UK unity or EU membership, because you can’t have both.

But in other respects, I could see quite a lot of merit in the EU. Free movement made it easier to live and work in EU countries. The Single Market was probably beneficial economically.

Brexit has not failed. It has destroyed the SNP. The UK economy is doing about as well in comparison with similar EU economies. But Brexit has not succeeded either. It has not limited migration. Quite the reverse. We just get our migrants now from outside the EU. We have not gained an economic advantage from Brexit, because we have not really tried to gain it.

I can see why sensible people still regret that we voted to Leave. There were some good arguments for Remain. But here is where the EU flag wavers at the Proms are behaving anachronistically. They have not moved on from the Remain arguments of 2016. They still think that the EU that we left we could rejoin. But you can’t step into the same EU twice.

There is I think a very good reason why no serious British political party will campaign to rejoin the EU at the next General Election. While I think it quite possible that a second referendum on EU membership would give a Remain result, it won’t give a Rejoin result.

This is ably illustrated by the SNP’s views on EU membership. The SNP is keen for an independent Scotland to join, but only if it can avoid those aspects of the EU that were never popular in Scotland and the UK generally. Schengen and the Euro. So, the SNP argues that those bits that we don’t like we could avoid or at least put off indefinitely.

So too British supporters of rejoining the EU argue that the UK could avoid EU federalism and be given opt outs on the Euro and Schengen.

Perhaps we could, but here is the problem. Remainers and now Rejoiners are only enthusiastic about the Common Market. They are happy for us to have free movement. They are happy for us to be part of the Single Market, but if you offer them Euro federalism and the steps needed to complete it, they are not so keen.

But while it was just about possible in 2016 to argue that we could avoid those aspects of the EU that we dislike, it is not possible now.

If the UK came to the EU and said Brexit was a terrible mistake, please let us back we would come as a supplicant. The EU would set the terms of membership and we know how hard a bargain it made when we left. To suppose that it would not drive a hard bargain if we wanted to rejoin is to misunderstand the EU entirely.

It is not in the EU’s interest to have an unenthusiastic UK always trying to stop EU integration as we were before. Nor indeed would it want an unenthusiastic Scotland always resisting Euro federalism. For this reason, there would be no Thatcher rebate on the EU membership fee. There would be no leaving the ERM, there would be no impossible conditions as set out by Gordon Brown for joining the Euro. There would be no avoiding Schengen, just as there would be no avoiding anything else we didn’t like.

The EU has enough trouble with Poland and Hungary resisting edicts from Brussels without adding the UK too.

But if it became clear to the UK electorate that EU membership was to be either full membership or nothing, then it would choose nothing.

But this is not merely a problem for British rejoiners, it is a problem for the EU itself.

The EU exists as it does for historical reasons. France was successfully invaded three times between 1870 and 1940, because a united Germany was too strong for France to defeat on its own. Germany since its Septemberprogramm of 1914 has wanted to create a Mitteleuropa economic association dominated by Germany. Both France and Germany get what they historically wanted from the EU. Germany no longer invades France and France gets to feel it is still an important power ruling Europe like Napoleon, but in fact Germany rules. France gets the illusion of power and maintains its security. Germany gets a market for its manufacturing and pretends to have put behind it all that nasty militarism. But the EU fulfils Germany’s war aims from 1870 to 1939 quite nicely. Everyone is happy.

But no one else in the world is pursuing this model of federal integration. There are lots of security and economic associations in the world. There is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. There is the North American Free Trade Association. There is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But no one else is trying to create anything like the European Union.

The New York Times may think that Brexit is folly, but neither it nor any American voter wants either a single North American currency, nor passport free travel nor to have a North American Parliament or a North American Commission in Ottawa. The Japanese don’t want to be part of an Asian Union ruled from Beijing. No one in South America or Africa or indeed anywhere else wants what the EU offers and demands as a condition for membership.

But this is not merely a problem for those who want to persuade us to rejoin the EU. It is above all a problem for the EU. Poles and Hungarians are happy to gain the benefits of EU membership, but few if any want Poland and Hungary to become regions of a United States of Europe. Worse the French don’t want this either.

No one else in the world is trying to unite people with different languages, cultures and histories into a federal state. The single currency only makes sense if there is to be a political union, but no one wants political union. Least of all the Scottish nationalists. That is what they have now.

It makes sense for nation states to cooperate. It makes sense for them to have free trade agreements. It may even make sense for them to have a common market. But no one else is trying to create a federal state out of peoples who are so different as the peoples of Europe and who have almost nothing in common except geography.

The EU is a mass of contradictions that no one else wants to imitate. This is why despite the EU flags at the Proms there is no chance that the UK or indeed an independent Scotland would choose to join it. The voters would not allow it.   

Rule Berlaymont, Berlaymont rules not even itself.

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