In Part 1 of this blog, Kenneth MacArthur introduced the notion that the EU the UK may at some point seek to rejoin will be different to that which it left. He considered the euro and the banking union, two areas where developments have fundamentally changed the character of the EU membership which the UK left behind. A third area is the so-called “NextGenerationEU”.
The agreement that was reached by EU member states in the summer of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is widely acknowledged in the UK. This economic recovery package of €750 billion is funded by joint borrowing. Although not the EU’s first foray into common debt issuance, NextGenerationEU, as it is known, is on a much larger scale than anything the union has carried out previously.
While ostensibly a one-off programme in response to the particular circumstances of the pandemic, NextGenerationEU has been described by some as the first step towards a genuine fiscal union - something which many have always held to be a necessary complement to the EU’s existing monetary union.
We will never know this for sure, but it seems hard to believe that NextGenerationEU - which covers all EU member states and not only members of the euro area - would have been agreed to had the UK still been a member of the EU. While still some distance from the fiscal union of the United States - or indeed that of any individual EU member state - the EU is now a fiscal union in a way which it was not on 31 January 2020 when the UK left the European Union.
Are those of us in the UK’s pro-European movement ready to be honest about that, and to advocate for membership of it?
The EU either is already or is in the process of becoming a monetary union, a banking union, and a fiscal union. The completion of the banking union and the further development of the fiscal union may be years away, but so is a potential UK re-accession; in the meantime, the direction of travel is clear - all three of these unions are becoming ever more integral to the very nature of what constitutes the European Union.
It seems implausible that the 27 EU member states will welcome with open arms an applicant UK that looks a lot like the UK that left - millions of grudging Europeans reluctant to acknowledge their EU citizenship and identity, and always wanting to opt out of fundamental parts of the project.
If our argument for rejoining involves harking back to the allegedly ‘best deal’ that was the UK’s previous membership, rather than embracing and advocating for the EU of the 2020s, it seems doomed to failure.
Postscript: this post was written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the last few weeks, the UK and the EU have been working more closely together than at any time since Brexit - perhaps most visibly demonstrated by the attendance of the UK foreign secretary at an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in early March. However, such close working is not the same as being inside the institutional structures of our continent’s preeminent political union.
One observer remarked that the EU’s view of its role in the world has changed more in the last four weeks than it did in the previous four decades. As well as monetary, banking and fiscal unions, the EU is becoming a hard-power actor. But the UK is not at the table as it deliberates that change.
War and peace, democracy and the rule of law, health security, energy security and climate change are the big issues of our time, and our continent needs a coherent response to all of them. That response will be led by the EU.
In time, the UK should once again play its full part in the councils of the EU, helping to shape that response - but to do so will mean accepting the fundamental tenets of the contemporary EU as we find them.
The author works in the tech industry, and previously helped found the London Pro-European Forum following the 2016 EU referendum.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.