Four years on from the referendum, JOHN KAMPFNER considers what might happen in the future, and the long term prospects for Bre-entry
John Gummer tells a fascinating if painful story. Back in 1994, the-then environment secretary under John Major invited his new German counterpart and her husband to spend the weekend with him and his wife at his constituency home in Suffolk.
That German was a certain Angela Merkel. He had been impressed in his first meeting with her in Brussels that he was keen to establish a warm repartee.
The Merkels came for a long weekend and spent much of the time chatting by the fireside. On the Friday evening, Gummer took her to his local Conservative association.
She was taken aback by the anti-European sentiments, the incessant invocation of the war. ‘I now know how difficult it is for you,’ she told him afterwards. That lesson about the English, or a certain type of English, stayed with her.
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That was the era of the Maastricht rebels, the Conservative MPs whom a frustrated Major labelled as ‘bastards’ for trying to undermine his every step.
Hostility towards the European Union might then have been a nice project, but it also betrayed a feeling that had been latent throughout, that Merkel instinctively saw.
Everything that followed was little more than a rescue operation. Brussels did whatever it took to keep the recalcitrant Brits in. We know what happened next.
Around the time of the UK’s departure at the end of January, a number of pro-Remain commentators wondered out loud: when and how could we ever re-join?
It was the right question, but, as it turns out, it belonged to a different era. Covid-19 has changed all areas of politics and national life in ways that we cannot yet fathom and may well surprise us. That includes our relationship with Europe.
In the midst of the pandemic, Johnson’s negotiating team has been going through the motions.
Displaying default British arrogance, it has adopted a have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the single market, presumably in the knowledge that it would not have been accepted.
It assumed that either the EU would cave in (a desirable but unlikely possibility) or the UK would leave blithely without a deal.
This classic British exceptionalism was reinforced by the premise that it could roll the economic damage into the deep recession that is already beginning to bite, and nobody would be able to distinguish between the two. Fortune favours the incompetent.
In the short-term these calculations are probably right. In any case, a country on the rack is hardly going to be in a fit state to discuss Europe again, no matter how disastrous Brexit turns out to be.
Pro-Europeans, who suffered from a charisma deficit in 2016 and failed to ignite the public in the years that followed, know that they cannot be seen as pub bores or be accused of being declinists. Blaming someone for people’s suffering isn’t a good look.
Which is where the Black Lives Matter protests come in. I remember during one of the second referendum marches someone in their twenties saying to me, particularly when they saw the make-up of the crowd: ‘You have your middle-aged, middle-class passions, I have mine’.
She said she voted to remain and believed Brexit would be a bad thing, but – unlike tail-end baby boomers like myself – it didn’t make her wake up in the middle of the night.
Brexit was a form of identity politics – a point that was lost on the ‘yes’ campaign’s economic-centric messaging.
It defined those who wanted to leave; it defined people like me who wanted to stay.
Most of us, we must admit, are of a certain generation. For me, jumping on a plane (or, in our greener future, a train) is who I am, what I am. Speaking European languages is not for me a nice-to-have, but I couldn’t imagine a fulfilling life without it.
And, to use that cliché, I do see myself first a European, second a Briton.
For younger people – a broad term, as there is no cut-off and there are many exceptions to this rule – other forms of identity strike at their core: gender, race, sexuality and other considerations that fall into the loosely-termed diversity agenda.
These two definitions of identity are not mutually exclusive. Therein lies a possible route back to Europe.
The original European project was, for many on the continent at least, an emotional one. By joining Germany and France together at the hip the founding fathers were making war less likely and laying the groundwork for a new sense of being, a European identity that would complement national ones, indeed possibly supersede them.
To do that involved seeking ever closer union, but somewhere along the way that was lost in translation.
It became a technical project, focusing on acquis and institutions, on financial wrangling and treaties. The only time the EU displayed drama was in the inevitable all-night summit negotiations, with Britain either on its own or leading an awkward squad.
So much of the alliance’s good work, bringing people together on academic or cultural exchanges or on the environment, passed citizens by.
A new language will have to be found, a new modus operandi, not just for us (we’re out, who cares about us any more?) but for Europe’s young in order for the project to survive into the next generations.
Britain’s next cohort of influencers and leaders will, I hope, want to bind themselves to their peers in the EU, but it will be on different terms to now.
It’s likely that Johnson’s miserable government will stagger on, waving its plastic union flags, for its full term and possibly beyond. By then the bloc will have changed. Memories of Britain’s petulant membership will fade.
In institutional terms, one of two scenarios will present themselves. Either the EU will have strengthened at the centre – ‘more Europe’ as Emmanuel Macron puts it – or it will have moved more towards variable geometry (to use a phrase much loved in the 1990s), an inner core or outer core.
The latter will be more conventionally helpful to the UK. The former is more likely. Under Article 49, accession into, or back into, the EU is a long road. Britain would have to prove its fitness and will not be in a position to seek opt-outs.
The EU would look for sustained and stable public support for Bre-entry, in order to minimise the risk of ‘Brexit, the nightmare returns’. Approval of new countries has to be unanimous.
This will take a decade or two at least. Many of the more suspicious older voters will have passed away. Yet at the same time people of all ages will have got used to the reality of life outside the EU.
Vested interests tend to align themselves to the status quo.
But re-entry into the EU will not – must not – happen because of institutional architecture or because of economic suffering, but because voters passionately want it.