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Will the UK ever rejoin the EU? My contribution for El Confidencial

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

The Spanish-language magazine El Confidencial has asked fifteen experts to give their view on the prospect of a 'Bre-entry' in the 2020s, following the UK's official departure from the European Union on 31 December 2020. The article is here (paywalled).

My take, in English:

Theorists of international politics talk of ‘ontological security’ to describe States’ need to tell a consistent story about their meaning and purpose, and argue that preserving that coherent identity is often as powerful a motive as safeguarding strategic or economic interests. The UK’s decision to leave the EU is one of the rare moments when a State explicitly reconfigures its raison d'être and sets out to weave it into its institutions and practices on a grand scale.
The content of Brexit Britain’s sense of Self is a simple proposition: that the XXI century belongs to agile nation states rather than unwieldy supranational blocs. Bar a spectacular implosion of either the EU or the UK, it will be impossible to say whether that bet has paid off. It will be critical for the UK’s ontological security that Britain tell itself it has, and likewise the EU will have a vested interest in telling itself (and the member states) that it hasn’t. To someone like me, with deep personal stakes in both, this is the tragedy of Brexit: that the success of the UK will be measured against the failure of the EU, and vice versa.
It’s also why I think it’s unlikely that Britain will re-join the EU in the foreseeable future. The objective sunk costs of Brexit are large enough: Britons have given up an envied niche in the EU, with bespoke perks and opt-outs that they won’t recover were they to go through the hoops of the accession process as currently configured. (Let alone what will be asked of applicant countries ten or twenty years from now.) But the psychological sunk costs are perhaps even more of a deterrent: re-joining would run roughshod over Britain’s ontological security. Electorally, arguing for it would sound tantamount to telling the country it has been living a lie – not exactly a vote winner. Politically, the process would be a humiliation an order of magnitude larger than the 1956 Suez crisis or the 1976 IMF loan – and those were bad enough to bring down two prime ministers.
In sum, those on both sides of the argument and of the Channel expecting a reckoning over ‘who was right’ in June 2016 are likely to be disappointed. There won’t be a happily-ever-after resolution – not even a shotgun marriage. Instead, room for cooperation must be found in spaces where both the EU and the UK can feel secure in their fundamentally divergent narratives about who they are and what they stand for.

Image credits: Raquel Cano/El Confidencial

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