The sight of more heavy rain outside the window tells me it’s high summer. This means all the important people have gone on holiday to somewhere sunnier, leaving us hoi polloi to discuss politics.
As a result, I’m at my desk when Matt Goodwin’s latest Substack post arrives, heralded as a contribution to ‘silly season’.
The core argument is that talk of rejoining the EU is overblown, because there are lots of things that are problematic about membership.
Since Matt reminds me how many of us all subscribe to his Substack, I’ll assume you’ve read it.
As a first thought, this is classic eurosceptic messaging on the EU and European integration: it’s costly, it’s too intrusive but also not strong enough to sort things out, it’s lethargic and divided and it leaves the door open to millions of people coming here.
These messages don’t just date back to 2016, but to the mid-1990s.
The messages have hung around for two main reasons.
Each of them taps into wider discontents and emotions about politics, about foreigners, about fairness that allow them to leverage more engagement from audiences. Politicians are the least trusted profession in the UK, you say? Well maybe it’s not going to hurt my cause (whatever it is) to trash-talk them then, right? Certainly I can think of would-be populists who rail against the failings of the ‘new elite’ in just this manner.
But the messages also persist because they have something to them.
If I were being sniffy about Matt’s list I could argue that there are various things that are rather particular readings of situations, but actually most of it isn’t that arch.
Let’s take the first of his ‘very good reasons’:
- It will not be like it was before. The relationship will be harder and the terms will be worse. You will not get special opt-outs on things like Schengen, justice and home affairs. You will not get rebates. You will have to go all-in. And having already left once you will not be as influential as you were before.
“Fair enough” is my main response here.
The EU is in constant evolution, just like the UK, so to pretend one could just make like it’s 22 June 2016 and none of this ever happened is deeply naive. The opt-outs the UK secured during its membership came because it was there as new policy domains were developed: as a new member state it would have to cleave to what the EU already has in place.
And even more than influence is the question of whether the EU and its member states want to go around British involvement once again. If we can flip into increasing support in the few years since the referendum, then we can flop back in equally short order: a new membership wouldn’t settle things definitively, so why return to that psychodrama at all?
We might take from this that the EU is not the land of milk and honey, just as it also not the ‘end of a thousand years of history’: it’s a choice, and one with both costs and benefits.
Moreover, it should also remind us that this choice is not just for the UK alone: the EU has not only a voice but a vote, so for any kind of relationship beyond ignoring each other, there has to be common cause and agreement.
As such, Matt is right to argue that the polling is misleading and would tighten in any active debate on re-accession. Most people don’t actually know or care that much about the EU, so follow cues from others. If re-accession where to close in, then some of those people would discover costs or inconveniences that make them think again about the matter: it’s happened in every other accession to the EU and it’d happen here.
Of course, research on this matter picks up some interesting elements in this. So let’s explore and – to keep in fair – let’s use Matt’s own work here.
First up, Matt did some polling back at the start of this year, looking exactly at the impact on attitudes of reminding people about the kinds of costs he’s listed this week. If you’ve paid for his Substack, you can read the full piece, but the exchange below picks up a key point, namely that even when you do expose people there’s still a majority in favour of rejoining.
tbh, the most remarkable thing about your polling is that, even when made aware of just how tough the re-entry requirements might be, still a majority of respondents want to #rejoin
— Jonny Brogdale (@Govtandpolitics) January 6, 2023
Of course, this is only one side of the equation. Matt (with co-authors) also found in 2020 that the British public had largely priced-in eurosceptic arguments about the EU, whereas pro-integration ideas seemed to have a more substantial effect. Put differently, precisely because everyone knows the old eurosceptic tunes they are less likely to nudge anyone’s views, while the same isn’t the case for their opponents.
This does, however, leave one not-inconsiderable issue: why haven’t pro-integrationists found their voices and their messages?
If the 2016 referendum campaign was striking for how Leave’s messaging was deeply familiar, then it was also striking for how Remain seemed to be casting around for anything equivalent. The same still broadly holds today.
The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but part of it is that pro-integrationists haven’t felt that they needed to make an active case until recently: the weight of the status quo bred a degree of complacency that facts and friction against change would be enough.
Even now, the focus on rationalist arguments about economic costs echo this position. They do not have the emotional heft that helped make eurosceptic ideas carry further.
Moreover, the numerous perceived failings of post-referendum government have bound up popular views with a set of contingent ideas: Brexit is unpopular because the government is unpopular (partly because its Brexit policy didn’t deliver), so what happens when you take the government out of the equation?
If pro-integrationists are to make any progress towards re-accession then they need to find ways of speaking that resonate with a wide constituency over an extended period of time. Whether they’ll secure is still to be seen, but certainly it’ll need longer than a season, silly or not.