On New Year’s Eve at 11 p.m., the United Kingdom departed both the single market and the customs union, making the end to the country’s former membership of the EU complete. It was a moment to celebrate for Brexiteers; the commemoration of sadness for some Remainers. Or should I say 'Rejoiners' — there is no remaining now, Great Britain having departed the European Union.
Many Rejoiners have set out their stalls already. ‘When they tell you to "move on" DO move on — to the long, strong, campaign to rejoin,’ tweeted Simon Schama, the historian and noted fan of the UK’s membership of the EU, ‘However hard the road, however long it takes; it starts now.’ ‘The campaign for Britain to rejoin Europe starts at midnight,’ wrote Andrew Adonis on Thursday.
Is it possible that we could re-join the EU anytime within the next 15 years? Even for a Rejoiner like me, the odds look slim.
Take the current situation with Brexit as it pertains to the Tories — and then as it applies to Labour. Boris has 'got Brexit done', and whatever you can say about the deal and the holes it has in it, the Prime Minister has Nigel Farage and the ERG backing the agreement, ending the Brexit wars on the right. Boris and his cabinet will be hyper-aware that while there are still agreements to be had with the EU in future, not least on financial services, but that anything seen to be moving visibly closer to the European Union will be politically verboten. The direction of UK-EU relations is set in stone for the next decade if you’re in the Conservative party: where we are now or more distant, at least appearance-wise.
For the Labour party, the direction of travel on the UK-EU relationship is way, way muddier. As much as Keir Starmer hoped that voting for the deal on Wednesday meant he and his party could move on from Brexit, I don’t think that is the case. What is much more likely is the Tories have given themselves some room to roam on the topic of Britain’s relationship with the EU, while Labour has been frozen in carbonite, a sitting duck for the Tories to throw rocks at on the issue for the foreseeable future.
During the next general election campaign, the Tories will want to talk about Brexit as little as humanly possible. They got it done, they have moved past the issue. All they will want to say on the topic is stuff that will hurt their main opponents, along the lines of, ‘Keir Starmer wants to undo Brexit as soon as he gets into No. 10 — he will want to move us closer to the EU.’ What does Starmer say to this charge? He can try to argue that all he wants to do is tidy up a few things that Boris didn’t sort; that he wants to correct the worst of the deal, not undo Brexit.
Yet even this will instantly put him in a difficult situation. Leavers will view him with maximum suspicion, while Rejoiners who didn’t vote Labour last time round will be looking for some movement toward the EU, no matter how slight, to sway them. Anyone who thinks Brexit was a good move, or at the very least doesn’t want to revisit the issue in any real sense, has the Tories to vote for; anyone who wants a move back towards the EU will be disappointed by what Starmer is offering, depressing a turnout Labour needs to maximise to have any chance of victory.
Look no further than what has happened already. After some shadow cabinet members made some noise about Labour looking to improve on the Brexit deal if they won they next election, Starmer shut it all down. ‘The public in Britain would expect us to make this deal work,’ the leader of the opposition said. ‘Will the renegotiation of the treaty be central to the manifesto? No.’ It’s clear that Starmer will run a mile from any talk of opening up the deal in even the most minor way from here on out. What this means in real political terms is that we are very likely entering a political era in which the Tories will face no opposition at all from Labour in regard to how they wish to shape the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Rejoiners meanwhile have no better political vehicle for their ambition to slowly creep back into the European Union. Starmer may well be the last hope for those who want to re-join, however much he waters down what he wants to do with the UK-EU relationship were he to gain power. The Lib Dems committed political suicide in December 2019 and are not a realistic alternative. With Starmer looking to push Brexit to the side as much as he can and no other viable political force dedicated to moving the UK even a millimetre closer to the EU in any real sense, how can it possibly happen? I fear that Britain’s relationship with the EU will get more distant before it gets any cosier. Sorry, Rejoiners — we’re on our own for the foreseeable future.