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Britain might join the EU in future. It can never “re-join”

Too many pro-Europeans have unrealistic hopes of returning to the UK's status before the 2016 Brexit Referendum


Posted 30 January 2023

As a member of the Liberal Democrats, I am aware of the very widespread pro-EU sentiments within our Party.

Indeed I share them. I believe that Brexit was the greatest self-harm that Britain has inflicted upon itself since the 1930's.

As a Lib Dem, I am conscious that many of my fellow grass roots members would like the Party's Leadership to campaign vigorously for Britain to "re-join" the EU at the earliest possible opportunity.

I consider that those wanting such campaigning are misguided both about political reality in the UK and about the way that the EU views the UK. Accordingly I wrote a piece for the Liberal Democrat Voice website to explain why.

You can read it below. As you will see from the original piece on Liberal Democrat Voice, the editor decided to "improve" the title, which lost the emphasis I was seeking to give.

The UK can never re-join the EU. It might join it.

I have passionately supported European integration since I first became aware of the European Economic Community around 1962. I am as die-hard a Remainer as you can find. Despite that, I consider calls within our Party asking our leaders to campaign for re-join to be naïve.

To re-join something means basically to restore what existed before. If I fail to pay my subscription to the Chartered Institute of Taxation, I will be expelled. If I pay the missing subscription in a reasonable timescale, I can re-join and do not need to take any membership examinations; examinations that must be taken by new members seeking to join.

To put it very simply, the UK has left the EU. If it wishes to become a member, it needs to apply for membership. The EU has a detailed process for dealing with membership applications, and of course every single EU member state has a veto.

If the UK does in future apply for membership, how is the EU likely to react?

For most of its historic period of membership, the UK was a somewhat curmudgeonly EU member. There were exceptions. For example, before she became anti-EU, Margaret Thatcher was probably the greatest European impetus behind the creation of the single market in goods. Overall, UK governments and most UK voters have not believed in the vision of an ever-closer union between the peoples of Europe that underlies the “European Project.”

That is why the EU has functioned noticeably better since the UK departed. (It also helps that the UK has provided the EU with a nearby “adversary”.)

If in future the UK does apply for EU membership, I would expect a rational EU to respond as follows.

Firstly, to insist that the UK signs up for membership in full. This requires signing up to join the euro in a relatively short and fixed timescale from which the UK cannot resile.

When the UK was a member, much of its uncooperative behaviour derived from its monetary independence. (The other major source of uncooperative behaviour was the UK’s collective memory of imperial grandeur. The simple passage of time and generational change is slowly dealing with that problem!) Replacing the pound sterling with the euro is something I regard as a minimum level of commitment to EU membership by the UK.

Similarly, I would expect the EU to require the UK to join the Schengen travel zone.

Secondly, to require evidence that the desire for the UK to have EU membership has widespread support within the UK and is not a transitory outcome of the UK’s peculiar politics.

If there is a referendum, I think the EU should require an approval threshold of about 75%. Furthermore, if any major political party (meaning the Labour Party or the Conservative Party) opposes the EU membership application, or any of the devolved governments opposes the membership application, the EU should tell the UK “to get its act together” first and only then think about applying.

When do I think this might happen? In my view only when there is almost universal UK acceptance that Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster with no redeeming features.

Given the speed of the UK’s decline post Brexit, this might be the case around 2030 or 2035. If we work hard, by then our Party might have succeeded in replacing the Conservative Party as one of the two major political parties in the UK!

Comments from readers

There were a number of comments from readers, and I engaged in the debate with them. I recommend reading them below the article on Liberal Democrat Voice.

I believe some of the comments illustrate the failure to appreciate how the EU sees things that led me to write the article.


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