Who Wants to Join The EU: Not The UK?

In her latest article, Kirsty Hughes challenges the view held in some political, media and academic circles that the UK has little appetite for rejoining the EU. 

This article was first published on Kirsty Hughes’s substack on 24 June 2024: https://kirstyhughes.substack.com/p/who-wants-to-join-the-eu-not-the.

By Kirsty Hughes

The EU will launch formal accession talks on Tuesday 25th June with Ukraine and Moldova. Along with several western Balkans candidate countries, these two states want to join the EU.

According to one UK opinion poll a few days ago, 62% of the UK public also support re-joining (ironically the same figure as voted ‘remain’ in Scotland in the 2016 referendum 8 years ago). Yet, as the general election campaign trundles forward to its rather inevitable conclusion (even if the Scottish result is still more open than some suggest), there is precious little discussion of Brexit – by common agreement between the Tories and Labour.

And there is a segment of opinion, that suggests re-joining is just a fantasy. In Scotland, Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of Glasgow University, suggested just this in a post on X, arguing there was no interest in Brussels or EU capitals in the UK rejoining. But this is rather looking through the telescope from the wrong end.

The EU controls who joins, or not, their club. But it is open to any European country to apply. And the real drag on the possibility of the UK re-joining the EU is UK politics – or mostly, and more precisely, English politics. In a world, where the UK’s politics had recovered from the still damaging choice to leave the EU, there would be a serious, pan-UK discussion of re-joining. And a UK that looked – in terms of its government, opposition and public – like it had fully understood the folly of Brexit, would certainly be able to apply to re-join.

But Keir Starmer doesn’t want that discussion, not least while he’s aiming to win with a landslide and, in due course, get a second term. And we have yet to observe how far and fast and in what ways the Conservatives implode, while Nigel Farage spins his far-right rhetoric – with the Tories and Reform between them currently polling, together, at around 35%.

So, that stable and comprehensive UK wishing to re-join the EU may be some way off. But it will retreat ever further into the future, if it’s not discussed and put forward as the best and most reasonable option, and serious consideration given to a possible timetable and how to build on the new majority for re-join. It is a quite extraordinary reflection on the inadequacy of UK politics today, that a large majority would now support re-joining yet it’s not discussed by the UK’s two main parties nor by swathes of the media. And indeed, it has only really been pushed by the SNP during this election.

Will History Repeat Itself – and When?

We have, in a way, been here before. When the original European Economic Community was founded in 1957, the UK rejected the opportunity to join at the beginning (when it participated in the Messina conference in 1955). And instead, the UK founded and joined the European Free Trade Association, EFTA.

The UK realised its error rather fast in being outside the EEC. But its application to join was vetoed twice by French President Charles de Gaulle – in 1961 and 1967. When de Gaulle finally stood down as president, the UK applied yet again – in 1969 – and joined alongside Denmark and Ireland in 1973.

So, from the UK’s original ‘no’ to joining the EEC took eighteen years (though it only took six years to first change its mind and try to join). We are now eight years from the Brexit vote, yet some argue the possibility of re-joining must be ignored entirely (Keir Starmer) or at least pushed off into the distant future.

EU-UK after the election

There will be lots of positive mood music between EU leaders and the UK’s new prime minister Keir Starmer after 4th July. European leaders will meet at Blenheim Palace on 18th July, in the format of the European Political Community, a lose grouping that includes non-EU states, so there will be plenty of photo opportunities.

And we will see new dimensions to the EU-UK relationship unfold. Probably, there will be a formal EU-UK security framework – for regular discussion and consultation. There may be some cooperation on climate measures. There will be more detailed talks on the UK aligning with EU veterinary rules. But any new steps will have to be in the interests of both sides – and some steps, even small ones, will need time to negotiate.

Certainly, the EU will welcome more positive relations, but the UK is not top of its, likely to be increasingly fraught, agenda. The EU leaders will meet at the European Council at the end of this week to agree on who will be the European Commission’s next president (still expected to be Ursula von der Leyen) and the next chair of the European Council (probably former Portuguese prime minister António Costa) and the next EU foreign policy supremo (expected to be Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas).

But the EU’s politics is getting ever trickier. While the centre-right European People’s Party remains the largest grouping in the European Parliament, the far right did do well too. And the European Parliament must agree the new European Commission president – the numbers are tight. French elections, called by President Macron in the face of Le Pen’s National Rally coming first in the European Parliament elections, are held over the next two Sundays – the second round being on 7th July. By the time of graceful photo opps at Blenheim Palace, French, and so EU, politics may be looking quite unstable.

And Hungary, under Viktor Orbán, takes over the Council of the EU presidency on 1st July (a weaker position than it used to be but not insignificant). Orbán’s chosen slogan of “Make Europe Great Again” with its deliberate and direct Trumpian reference tells us this will not be an easy political six months for the EU.

And, just as in the UK, the EU’s far right parties’ positions from anti-migration to climate scepticism have too much and too often dragged centre-right parties further right on these issues. Expect to hear more about security and less about climate change – despite the urgency of green policies being the biggest security challenge of all.

And, as an outsider looking in, the UK will have little influence or relevance on most of how the EU tackles its biggest challenges including the economy, climate change, security, international relations, democracy and rights within the EU and more. The UK’s economy and democracy has been damaged by Brexit, its international standing and influence much diminished. Perhaps the only fantasy is the idea that carrying on with the UK’s hard Brexit, as Keir Starmer has promised, is a realistic path.

Picture credit: Kirsty Hughes