Nick Hopkinson argues that pro-European supporters should bide our time before campaigning fully for rejoin.
Party conference season will soon again be upon us. But not as we have known them before. For obvious reasons, conferences are being moved online. But that’s not the only difference. Labour’s “Connected” will be a series of virtual events including policy discussions, but it appears there will be no votes on any motions. The Lib Dems and Greens will continue to debate policy motions and vote on them. The Conservative Party conference will also debate policy, but as in the past will not vote on any motions.
Conference motions often feature grand aspirations and statements of intent. Rejoining the EU is one of them. Remainers should be able to agree that our ultimate goal is to rejoin the EU, otherwise the depth of pro-Europeanism might be in doubt. For some, the priority is to campaign now to rejoin the EU. This issue risks dividing Remainers into polarized ‘purist’ and ‘pragmatist’ camps. Any such debate should be more one of tactics, rather than any disagreement over the end goal.
Purists argue we should rejoin now because the majority of public opinion favours EU membership. Support for remaining in the EU has indeed stayed consistently, but only marginally, ahead since the 2016 referendum. Unfortunately, pushing rejoining automatically excludes almost half the population, some of whom will inevitably react with the bullying mantra “you lost, get over it."
For this and other reasons, pragmatists see rejoining as a longer term goal. Pragmatists appreciate the British public is preoccupied with the tragic health, social and economic implications of the pandemic, so rejoining is best placed on the backburner. Brexit today is hardly on the top of anyone’s agenda. In 2019, Brexit was the number one issue for people (47%) but this has now slumped to 2%. Today the pandemic is unsurprisingly the number one issue (78%), up from 0% last year.
With so many voters preoccupied with the impact of the pandemic and bored of Brexit, calls to rejoin as can be regarded as old and irrelevant. So banging on to voters about rejoining is not for now, although we should not lose sight of the ultimate aim to rejoin.
In any case, rejoining is simply not possible for the foreseeable future in the context of an apparently unassailable Conservative parliamentary majority, and an EU which would take its time considering whether to readmit what is increasingly regarded as an untrustworthy, if not ‘rogue’, state. Lastly many Remainers are exhausted and do not want to refight recently lost battles. So ironically advocating rejoining now risks being counter-productive, and missing opportunities to advance the Remain cause in other ways.
Pro-European efforts need to focus on immediate concerns (health, cost of living, education, public services, food and jobs). Recent polling has found there is less public support for campaigning to rejoin when compared to more tangible and immediate concerns such as securing a good trade deal. Support for pan-European educational and scientific programmes is particularly strong - such as continuing to participate in Erasmus, Horizon and joint programmes with the EU to defeat COVID-19.
No serious pro-European organisation is campaigning to rejoin now. Good politics is the art of achieving the possible, not advocating the improbable and seemingly irrelevant. We should therefore campaign for more immediate and obvious short-term needs such as market access, access to vaccines, maintaining food supplies and standards. By progressing these goals, we advance our ultimate goal of rejoining the EU.
By making our goals realistic and leaving our options open, we recognise that campaigning to rejoin is best progressed more wholeheartedly later on. When the downside of Brexit becomes (unfortunately) more evident after early next year, the time to campaign to rejoin wholeheartedly comes nearer.
Party political leaders recognise these realities, although their language has been rather dismissive. In an interview on September with Sky’s Beth Rigby, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer placed considerable emphasis on concluding a deal with the EU as being in the national interest. Cognisant of Conservative taunts of his backbenchers being unreconstructed Remainers, Sir Keir stated "The Leave/Remain argument is over and there was no case for reopening it." Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt he meant now!
Meanwhile Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey argued on Sky’s Ridge programme (Sunday 6 September) “I think the idea that people want to revisit this [rejoining] in two or three years time will be for the birds." When asked specifically whether the Lib Dems will campaign to remain, Sir Ed answered cryptically “We are a pro-European party."
Faced with this current dismal political landscape, what should pragmatic and purist Remainers do? First, if we haven’t already done so, recognise reality. Secondly, we should unite around a series of propositions:
- We continue to identify and expose the adverse consequences of Brexit, and in so doing point to the benefits of the closest possible relations with the EU;
- Specifically demonstrate how Brexit undermines the successful delivery of the Government's COVID-19 policy;
- Champion the closest possible policy alignment between the UK and EU27, in particular in areas such education, medicine and science;
- At an appropriate future date, determined by political circumstances, the failure of the Government to deliver its Brexit promises, campaign in due course for a public vote on rejoining the EU and for the UK to rejoin it.
By addressing and advocating specific issues now, and hopefully winning small victories, we can together keep our shared future end goal alive. As St. Augustine prayed “Lord make me pure, but not yet."
- Nick Hopkinson is a Vice Chair of London4Europe and a member of the European Movement UK National Executive. This article is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the views of London4Europe or the European Movement UK.