Rethinking Europe

If the UK Stays…

Evaluating the prospects of “No Brexit.”

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Takeaways


  • No Brexit would above all be a victory for economic and political rationality. Brexit is costly, especially for the UK, but also for the rest of the EU.
  • Remain could prove toxic for domestic British politics. The UK is not going to become fervently pro-European just by virtue of not leaving.
  • The prospect of Brexit has served as a spur to enable the EU to make – modest – progress in some areas where the British had been obstructive, such as defense.
  • Knowing the British, if they remained in the EU they would immediately put forward a reform agenda that would be attractive for a significant number of member states -- though not for the most pro-European.

The prospect is again being raised of Brexit not taking place and the UK remaining in the EU. Negotiations are at an impasse, the opposition Labour Party’s attitude has changed and public opinion is shifting.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has made it clear that he will accept neither leaving without a deal with the EU – which would be disastrous – nor what Theresa May is currently offering. In the absence of a general election, he will call for a referendum, although he is reluctant to refer to it as such.

Corbyn did not go as far as the shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, who declared at the annual Labour Party conference that “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.” The assembled delegates gave the announcement a rapturous reception, although admittedly the delegates are not the voters.

According to one poll, 86% of Labour members want another referendum, but in many constituencies won by the Labour Party in 2017 there were clear pro-Brexit majorities in the 2016 referendum. Corbyn knows this, hence his caution, particularly given his own personal reservations about the EU.

To achieve its goal — to secure the parliamentary defeat of any deal May reaches with the EU — Labour faces a significant hurdle. It would need to rely on the support of Tory MPs opposed to Brexit.

What about the voters?

Assuming that Article 50 can be reversed, what about British voters? One would surely hope that this time there will be a greater turnout among the younger voters who stayed away from the polls in 2016. At present, though, the polls suggest that there is now just a 54% majority in favor of Remain, which is still far from a decisive vote.

But let’s assume a second referendum (under whatever name) is held and that Remain wins — What is the scenario that would face the EU and the UK?

To begin with, it would be a great victory for the European idea, which would gain strength and stability. It would also be a triumph for the Brussels mode of conducting negotiations, with the European Commission and Michel Barnier having played the lead role.

Contrary to all expectations at the outset, they managed to preserve a remarkably united front among the EU 27. That sends a loud and clear message that the four freedoms of the single market (the free movement of goods, capital, services and people) cannot be split up at the convenience of the leaver.

If it doesn’t work for Britain…

If it doesn’t work for Britain, a country that proved masterful in the past at extracting unilateral concessions from the rest of the EU, it surely won’t work for others who might be tempted to leave.

No Brexit would above all be a victory for economic and political rationality. Brexit is costly, especially for the UK, but also for the rest of the EU.

And it may be an important victory for preserving the UK’s territorial integrity. After all, it has become abundantly clear that, no matter how much Mrs. May tries to square the circle, there is no solution on hand that combines the unity of the UK, a not full participation in the European customs union and the absence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (so as not to imperil the achievements of the peace process).

That said, the Remain option is not devoid of problems for the EU. It could prove toxic for domestic British politics. The UK is not going to become fervently pro-European just by virtue of not leaving.

Rejecting “ever closer union”

It is clear that the rest of the EU is increasingly fragmented, and it is not only the British who reject the notion of an “ever closer union” among the peoples of Europe. This despite the fact that, in terms of incorporating EU law, the British have always been more loyal and compliant than many others, including the Spanish.

However, there is a big difference between resisting the effort to intensify European integration (“ever closer”) and trying to kill the EU’s core by splitting the four freedoms apart.

The prospect of Brexit has served as a spur to enable the EU to make – modest – progress in some areas where the British had been obstructive, such as defense.

If Brexit is abandoned, the political attention of the EU’s leaders would, in all likelihood, rapidly turn to a new accommodation with the UK, despite the latter not being able to dictate the terms.

Knowing the British, they would immediately put forward a reform agenda for the EU that would be attractive for a significant number of member states, even though not for the most pro-European. Most specifically, the UK would seek not only to join the cause of the “New Hanseatic League,” but seek to wrestle the leadership of that group from the Dutch.

Frustration over no Brexit could also revive the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the more strident Brexit enthusiasts in the Conservative Party at the polls, boosting the number of Eurosceptics and xenophobes, who are set to increase significantly in the next European parliament.

And as Neal Lawson suggests, a new national agenda is needed that addresses the causes of the Brexit vote in 2016, whether cultural, demographic (including those that stem from immigration), involving social injustice, democratic, territorial or economic. This is what Corbyn is tapping into with his radical platform, which is gaining in the polls, as even part of the conservative press acknowledges.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from Andres Ortega’s Global Spectator column, which he writes for the Elcano Royal Institute.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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