Hardly a day goes by without someone informing me that re-joining the EU will take at least 10 years. Such people always say that they are in favour of re-joining, but they are resigned to a long haul.
It’s impossible to know how many of them are natural pessimists, how many have simply been worn down by the barrage of lies and disinformation from the government and the mainstream media, and how many are flying a false flag. It scarcely matters, because the message is always undeserving. It is a counsel of despair, a recipe for inaction, the kind of fatalism associated with hopeless situations.
Far from hopeless
Yet the situation is far from hopeless. Each day brings new evidence of the absurdity of Brexit and its failure to deliver the promises that were made for it.
The country can no longer ignore the real damage, now only partly masked by the covid epidemic, that Brexit is doing to our economy, to our politics and to our daily lives.
Buyer’s remorse is everywhere. You hear it from fishermen, farmers, hauliers, shopkeepers, the hospitality industry, the performing arts, from owners of houses in Spain, in fact from all sides. This wasn’t the Brexit they voted for. It is, however, the Brexit that we warned them against.
Brexit has not even solved the immigration problem. It has caused many Europeans who helped run important parts of our economy to leave the country, very much to our detriment, while at the same time exacerbating the problem of managing refugees.
Wrong on economic and moral grounds
To allow the current situation to continue unchallenged, to accept that nothing can be done and that we must simply wait for the political stars to align differently over the next decade would be a profound dereliction.
It would be wrong on economic grounds, because Brexit is doing the country grave damage, and this will get worse the longer things are allowed to slide. It would also be wrong on moral grounds, because Brexit was a fraud against the British people.
An injustice of massive proportions has been done, and it needs to be redressed.
A cakeist solution
Injustice is a strong word, but it is appropriate.
The fundamental flaw in the referendum of 2016 was that it promised a binary choice, but the leave ticket actually masked several different options that were never fully spelt out. A cakeist solution was promised in which the UK would have had all the benefits but none of the costs of EU membership.
We were never told how this would be achieved. The Leave cause never revealed the downside of the extreme option that it ultimately imposed, and it refused the calls for a final say.
In the General Election of 2019, more votes were cast for parties that opposed Brexit than for the government, but Boris Johnson nevertheless won a majority of seats because of the distortions caused by the First Past the post voting system. He won by promising to get Brexit done, but his oven-ready deal was half baked. He reopened negotiations on the deal he had signed before the ink was dry.
Reminiscent of the 1930’s
Meanwhile, the geo-political situation beyond Europe is dire. The Americans have been weakened by the Trump era and the social divisions that caused it and that it exposed. China and Russia are pursuing territorial ambitions that put them on a collision course with their neighbours.
This is not the time for the UK to be floating metaphorically between continents, bereft of friends and partners.
The world is experiencing a confrontation between liberal democracy and authoritarian populists reminiscent of the 1930s. The climate crisis and the epidemic both underline the importance of international cooperation and the impossibility of achieving much on a purely national basis.
Facts and reality favour re-joining
Now I can hear my pessimistic friends proclaiming that the EU will never allow us back, or that if it does, it will impose penal conditions.
I think this is nonsense. The EU is an organisation based on law. It does not respond on the basis of sentiment but on the basis of fact and reality. The EU has not yet been asked what position it would take, and the question remains hypothetical so long as the present British government is in charge.
But reality is steadily teaching the British political establishment no end of a lesson. Once the tide turns, things will evolve rapidly.
The EU has massive reasons to respond positively to a new UK negotiating partner. If the UK returns to the European fold, the European project will receive a massive boost. The EU will have overcome the British rebellion and brought it to a successful outcome. It can begin to repair the economic damage that Brexit has undoubtedly done on both sides.
Reality cannot wait
Sadly, our dysfunctional political system so far seems unable to rise to the challenge. The problem is at its most acute in Northern Ireland, which is where the contradictions of Brexit are most evident.
In England, the Conservative Party will require a period out of office to convert itself back into the moderate institution it was before Boris Johnson purged it of its pro-Europeans and gave free reign to the ERG. The Labour Party is as yet incapable of grasping the European nettle, and the LibDems, despite their recent success, are not yet able to play a leading role. The situation is complicated by the fact that the SNP want to use the European issue to further their independence claim.
But reality cannot wait, and if the political establishment fails to act, the situation will continue to deteriorate. We are fortunate that for the moment at least the levers of the British Deep State continue to work, but it is high time for our political class to get a grip.
Biographical note: The author was a British diplomat for nearly 40 years and wishes to remain anonymous. He spent most of his career in Europe, rising to the rank of Ambassador in 1997. After retirement in 2004 he worked with the governments of Romania and Croatia on their accession to the EU. Born in Cardiff, he identifies as Welsh, British, and European in no particular order.