By Jordy Benooit
April 2023, a pivotal moment in the Brexit saga. A majority of Brits, for the first time in seven years, would support their countries' return to the European Union. In those seven years they have seen three prime ministers resign, their economy in a perpetual state of crises, living standards in a freefall, and their country subjected to international ridicule and marginalisation. The British have had enough. To reverse the negative effects of Brexit, Brexit itself needs to be reversed and the UK must rejoin. Based on that premise, I argue that it is in the greater interest of the Union that the UK is kept out, for now.
As a European at heart, I must reluctantly acknowledge that the EU is not well. The failure of the European Constitution has resulted in a period of stagnation in the integration process. We are struggling to preserve our hard-won freedoms and prevent the erosion of the rule of law. Nevertheless, our unity in diversity remains, despite the latter feeling somewhat overbearing at times. We all share a sense of Europeanness. Even the peoples of Poland and Hungary, whose national governments may hold some Eurosceptic views. This duality in their identity sets these Eurosceptic members apart from the British. They still see themselves as Europeans and their nation as a part of Europe. Conversely, the British perceive Europe as something external or separate from themselves. This perspective, rooted in history, has led to their status as the "awkward member". Even Winston Churchill, a founding father of the EU and advocate for the United States of Europe, did not see the need for the UK to take part in it. The British perception of their distinctiveness from other European peoples persists today. Instead of considering the UK as a part of Europe, pro-European voices talk about the UK's connection to Europe, emphasising trade with "Europe" rather than "the rest of Europe".
Trade remains their primary interest. Brexit has not delivered sunlit uplands, and most people are beginning to accept its failures. The public debate is turning towards damage control, aiming to mitigate the negative consequences of Brexit, particularly its economic impact. Although a slim majority now supports rejoining the Union, it is crucial that we recognise that the British have not suddenly fallen in love with Europe. Discussions of rejoining are centred around what concessions the UK would be willing to make. Political integration, the euro, Schengen, and other non-trade-related issues are seen as possible concessions rather than valued aspects in themselves. For example, compare the British attitude towards the EU with that of Ukraine, a candidate member driven by positive motivations. Ukraine has voiced and demonstrated its desire to be part of Europe, seeking integration, cooperation, and participation in the Union as a full member. In contrast, the UK's incentive stems from negative motivations. A slim majority wants to rejoin because being outside the Union has proven economically worse than being inside.
However, the EU is more than just a trading bloc. The European level has been a political stage arguably since the Treaty of Rome, which laid out the foundations for an ever closer union. The UK, as the awkward partner, has often resisted this process. Often opting out if blocking it was no longer an option. While others may also have reservations about further integration, their concerns primarily revolve around the direction of European integration, rather than opposition to integration itself. EU member states recognize that lending some sovereignty to the Union is necessary for its functioning. It began with cooperation on coal and steel, then trade and then much more domains over time. This progress can only be sustained if all members view further integration as both beneficial and necessary, rather than merely a concession for trade. The British, however, considered political and social cooperation and the free movement of services and people as concessions in exchange for free trade and the free movement of capital and goods. In 2016, they believed that these concessions outweighed the benefits of free trade. Now they believe they have miscalculated. If the UK were to rejoin today, its perception of the benefits of international cooperation beyond trade would not change. They would likely continue to assert their sovereignty whenever European integration enters a new phase. Therefore, it is in the Union's best interest to postpone the UK's re-entry until a new generation emerges. One that is willing to fully integrate into the Union and embrace its place in the European family.