Blog: Why Britain isn’t ready to rejoin the EU – yet – The Spectator

Is Brexit starting to unfold? Some Remain supporters think so. Poor economic performance, supply chain issues, and our inability as a country to fill jobs in sectors that were traditionally performed by cheap EU labour continue to dominate the headlines. But, despite the hopes of some Remainers, this doesn’t mean Britain is ready to rejoin the EU. 

It is true that a large percentage of the public seems to have shifted from thinking the country would benefit economically from Brexit, to thinking we are now worse off. According to polling by Public First on attitudes to Brexit, this shift is even present among Leavers: 64 per cent said they thought the economy would be stronger outside the EU at the time of the referendum; now just 19 per cent think this today.

Some might say that the current economic climate can be attributed to other factors unrelated to Brexit, such as the energy crisis and Covid. However, when asked as a follow up, most people who thought the UK was worse off economically since it has left the EU think Brexit plays a part (83 per cent of all respondents), even among Leave voters (67 per cent).

Rejoin optimists often ignore something important

As a result of these recent developments, some people are probably starting to regret their vote. YouGov’s tracker poll, which asks voters across the country whether it was right or wrong to leave the EU, shows a clear growth in the proportion who think it was a mistake: the majority now think it was wrong (56 per cent) as opposed to only about a third (32 per cent) who thought it was right. Part of this is of course due to the voting demographic having changed since 2016 (young people tend to be more opposed to Brexit), but even among Leave voters, the proportion who thinks it was wrong has grown from 4 per cent in 2016 to 19 per cent in late 2022. 

But while attitudes are changing, Rejoin optimists often ignore something important: that people are not ready to re-open this chapter. As many pollsters know, wording is key and variants of similar questions can generate drastically different issues. I tested the appetite for rejoining – without the context of another referendum in the question phrasing – by asking voters if they believed the UK should rejoin if given the option by the EU. In this case, the results show a tie, with 43 per cent thinking it should accept and rejoin, and 41 per cent thinking it should decline.

What about support for another referendum, on two time frames (one  immediate, and another in the long term)? Just over a quarter (26 per cent) wanted another referendum in the near future, and a further 21 per cent supported running another referendum in the long term. 36 per cent of voters thought the UK should never run a referendum to rejoin. 30 per cent of Leave voters believed there should be another referendum either in the near future or in the long term. In other words, there’s some sympathy for a referendum at some point, but not now.

This is symptomatic of a general fatigue in the public with regards to the Brexit question. Bregret or not, rejoining the EU would mean opening a Pandora’s box of complex debates we have barely been able to resolve. All this at a time when the majority of voters are mainly concerned about whether or not their living standards are improving or worsening.

Some rejoiners might argue that the logical answer to the economic malaise felt throughout the country at the moment would be to fully reconsider Britain’s relationship to the EU. This seems unlikely to convince many: Brexit was about much more than the country’s economy. The decision to leave was never fully about whether or not we would enjoy net benefits or losses. Most economists argued in favour of Remain, and warned the electorate of the likely consequences it would have on the nation’s GDP. As others noted before, the Leave vote was largely driven by a general discontent with the direction the country was taking, levels of immigration, and a desire to ‘take back control’. Whether or not one agrees on the importance of these ideas, they undeniably occupied a central role in the campaign. 

At the time of the referendum, there was a strong desire to start a national conversation, excitement about the prospect of finally being asked where they stood, and a craving for drastic change. As the referendum played out, and once the dust settled, people were ready to put this question behind them. This explains why Boris Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’ slogan proved so popular. It wasn’t about trying to achieve a particular form of Brexit: he simply knew that people wanted to stop talking about it and for someone to finally show some leadership to achieve this.

In recent days, Rishi Sunak was able to secure a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, which seemed to have been generally well received by the Westminster bubble but also the general public (to the extent they noticed). Beyond this lukewarm response, we shouldn’t expect any further reaction from voters.

Any efforts to try and bring the UK closer to the EU should remain focused on achieving what is realistic given low levels of public engagement. This is not to say that a re-join campaign is out of the question, especially given the timid but still significant view that the UK should consider another referendum in the long term. But any attempt should carefully consider its approach by drawing lessons from the past seven years. Successful campaigning isn’t just about having the soundest arguments: it’s also about keeping your finger on the pulse, and understanding how to craft a dialogue with people who are outside the bubble. Rejoiners desperate for Britain to come back into the EU should remember this.

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