Bright blue sky shines through the opening onto the central courtyard inside the European parliament building in Strasbourg, France. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/PA

How can we reverse Brexit when Europe doesn't want us back?

Officially, the leaders of the EU are disappointed that Britain is headed for the door. Secretly, they will be relieved when it goes
July 16, 2018

What strikes me most about the Brexit discussions in the UK is not the usual Eurosceptic xenophobia, but the lack of understanding of the EU’s position by those who campaign in favour of a Brexit reversal.

The leaders of the EU are officially disappointed that Britain is headed for the door; secretly they will be relieved when it goes. In truth, the EU does not really want Brexit to be reversed.

Why? Britain has a reputation as an obstreperous “partner” in the institutions, and in the past has sometimes made it harder for Europe to move forward—most notoriously in 2011, when David Cameron used the euro--crisis to try and extract concessions on other things.

In the event of a reversal, the Europeans would rightly assume that the ghost of Brexit would never go away. Ukip would be back in the European Parliament, adding strength to the Salvini and Le Pen factions. Brussels, Berlin and Paris could all do without that.

Let’s imagine—and it’s more of a leap than many Remainers acknowledge—that all the legal questions could be swept out of the way. I suppose the EU would ultimately accept a reversal, but without enthusiasm—and with conditions.

If a UK prime minister wrote a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, asking for Brexit to be reversed, he would immediately invoke a special EU summit, in which the other leaders would make at least three demands: the first is an end to the British budget rebate for the next budget period, and perhaps also an end to certain other instances of special treatment, such as on the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Secondly, the EU would insist that the UK could not block decisions they have taken since the UK announced its intention to leave.

The third ask would be for a political commitment by the big political parties not to trigger Brexit again after the next elections. Just let that sink in for a minute. And in any second referendum, the Brexiteers could reasonably argue that the UK was not simply remaining, but doing so on much less advantageous terms.

Britain, in other words, would inject a whole new wave of political instability and unpleasantness into its own politics, and those of the continent, if—after all the turmoil—it tried to remain. It would become harder, not easier, for Europe to grapple with the really big challenges it faces with the UK back on board.

By all means, change your mind. But don’t expect the rest of us to welcome you back with open arms.