Brexit, four years on: Reflections on Britain, the EU and the wider world

Believers keep the faith. Matthew Goodwin, the favourite academic pundit of the Farageist Right, still claims that “Brexit ushered us all into an incredibly exciting and entirely new era in our national history.” Yet, quite quickly and with no political prompting, many more people have seen through the moonshine. They have realised there are few, if any, Brexit opportunities. Statista report that ‘As of December 2023, 55% of people in Great Britain thought that it was wrong to leave the European Union (EU), compared with 33% who thought it was the right decision.’

But ‘Schadenfreude’ is no good for progressives. The world is an increasingly ugly and violent place where the ‘might is right’ politics of a variety of nationalist rulers dominates. In this setting, human, civic and social rights are all at risk.

This poses grave challenges for the EU as well as for the UK, which four years ago officially detached itself from its neighbour. The European Union began life as a peace project, hoping that economic integration would overcome the bitterness of two world wars and secure both prosperity and democracy for its citizens. Yet the limitations of its origins are increasingly exposed in a multi-polar world, where its initial guarantor, the US, now has other priorities, Ukraine notwithstanding. Above all, the EU lacks the cohesion that comes from a unified politics and a common Treasury with sufficient resources to tackle the mounting challenges that it confronts.

The basic political story is simple. Global challenges increasingly demand collective European responses. In the 21st century, fragmentation into 27 small or medium-sized nation states would be a gift to big powers across the globe.  During the von der Leyen Commission Presidency, on climate change, COVID and Ukraine, the EU has shown a new capacity for common action. Yet the challenges of a fractious world require far more. For the EU to prosper it needs the capacity to organise and protect its own interests much more effectively than it can do today. 

Here the outcome of the 2024 European elections and the policy direction of the new Commission will be vital. There are signs that some EU leaders recognise the need for a qualitative political shift. Commission President van der Leyen is using the EU commitment to embrace Ukraine and other Balkan states as a lever to persuade member states of the urgency of fundamental change. Crucial steps include: a commitment to streamline decision-making by moving from the requirement for unanimity to qualified majority voting thereby ending the veto; the capacity for the EU to be able to raise its own resources; and the budgets to promote industrial capacity in cutting-edge areas. Up till now the EU has been a world leader in regulation with its Single Market setting the standards for many industries. But as Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton puts it, “We can take pride in our regulatory efforts. But, referees don’t win matches. For Europe to be a digital leader, we need to invest in innovation, industrial development and digital infrastructure deployment.” The coming period will show whether the EU can modernise its governance and acquire the policy and financial instruments necessary to become a more effective player in global politics or if it is to remain a secondary player on the political margins.

All this matters deeply to the UK. It has taken just a few years to show the illusions of the hard Brexiters. There is no global trade nirvana. The Ministry for Brexit opportunities has come and gone. We are umbilically tied by reasons of geography, history and culture, let alone economics, to our nearest neighbours. 

So what kind of partnerships should we pursue? A segment of pro-Europeans ardently believe that we should campaign to re-join straight-away. This is unrealistic politics. There is little public willingness to re-engage on the issue; it would be an immense distraction for an incoming government trying to repair ‘broken Britain’; and as important, the EU itself shows no interest in re-opening the re-join debate. 

But if calls to re-join are a complete non-starter, this does not mean that discussing Europe is off the agenda.  A close working partnership between the UK and the Continent is in the interests of both parties. In the 21st century, no country – whatever its history – can ever walk alone. Progressives should challenge the untenable premises of a hard Brexit and change the terms of the UK’s political debate on Europe.  How?

Firstly, on the economy the opposition parties should state unequivocally that they have no intention of de-aligning from the regulatory framework of the Single Market: that there will be no race to the bottom on industrial, environmental or social standards.  This will create the conditions where a new government can discuss revising the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) so that a new economic partnership with the EU can be explored that would benefit both parties.

Secondly, Ukraine has shown the need to add a defence component to the TCA. NATO is an alliance for military operations. Yet today both the UK and EU countries need ongoing cooperation on defence, weapons procurement and security issues and that can most effectively happen within the EU.

Thirdly, on a range of research, educational and social issues – the Horizon programme, Erasmus/Leonardo exchanges, travel rules – a new UK government would need to repair the Brexit damage and strive to restore mutually beneficial relations.

These ways to change the framing of political debate can be signalled now. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has made some welcome moves in this direction. Yet Labour will need to modify some of its self-imposed red lines on the Single Market and be prepared to tackle the imperial illusions of a section of the electorate. They should be confident that there is a growing electoral majority that shuns the nationalist hype of the Farageists. It wants the UK to develop close cooperative relations with its European neighbours. That’s an opportunity that a new Labour government should confidently promote and which all progressives should support.

Europe After Ukraine, A Compass publication by Jon Bloomfield, is available to read here

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