The relationship between Britain and the Continent has always been complex. Both sides clearly feel an attachment to one another that comes from both historical and geographical links. But just one narrow strip of water between France and the UK has always created a dynamic of us and them. Victorian Royal Marriages, World Wars, Peace Treaties and the European Union haven’t been able to squash that distinct feeling of being one yet separate.
The UK’s integration into the European Union is a clear example of this separation. The UK, under Winston Churchill was only too happy to facilitate the formation European Economic Community but it was also too happy to not remain a part of it until 1973, when it’s economy was so poor that it desperately needed to join.
However, as the EU moved from an economic partnership to more of a political union, the UK became more skeptical about its place in the Union. When in 1990, the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, called for the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the community, the commission to be the executive and the Council of Ministers to be the senate, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously told the House of Commons “No. No. No.”
As the political union progressed, Britain’s difference became even further pronounced, as the EU moved towards a common currency. Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, established five economic tests on whether the euro would work for the UK. These tests were designed to close down rumours that the UK would join the euro in the short term and also to allow the Blair government to give a reasoned “yes” or “no” to the euro when decision-time finally came.
What these tests indicate however, is a quiet form of understated nationalism. The UK did not want to use the euro because there was a fear of further integration, not just an economic fear but a fear of losing a sense of national identity.
This sense of national identity is why UK has never been fully part of the European Union. It has always been an “outer-circle” member content to use its own power from the outside.
As British Euroskepticism increased, the EU allowed the UK a “special status” membership of the European Union in 2016. The UK was granted permission to not ever have to join the Euro, be part of the Eurozone bailouts, be part of passport free zones, or even join the European Army. This was a crucial win for David Cameron, who like many before him, tried to walk the fine line between the British Channel. Yet even this list of guarantees from Europe could not assuage the British peoples decision to not remain in the European Union.
What happens now is even riskier. Of course, leaving the European Union is a great leap of faith for the British people but the landing is slightly softer knowing that there was a life and a distinct sense of national identity before the EU.
No, the greater risk is if the referendum were to be reversed. The UK would have to go back to the EU, tail between its legs and say, the negotiations were too hard so we’d just like to sit down quietly and pretend nothing ever happened. This would give the European Union the power it has never had over the UK and the “special status” relationship that the EU and the UK enjoy, may never see the light of day.
There is no legal precedent for what the UK is currently doing, nor if they attempt to re-neg on the decision to leave. This may give the European Union the power to turn to the UK and insist upon its membership of the euro and insist it contribute to the Eurozone bailouts. The European Union has acted with a distinct bitterness throughout these negotiations, there has been an ignorance of any pragmatism or cooperation and we cannot expect this would change with another referendum. The EU has also stressed that the UK should not expect special treatment into the future, so it seems more likely is that the EU may dictate that the UK becomes an “inner-circle” member rather than sitting on the fence, as it has done since the 1950s.
Those fighting for a second referendum, who include the likes of billionaire George Soros, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell and even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, often accuse those who voted for Brexit of being unaware of the consequences of their vote. But they now seem unaware of the consequences of their own vote. Calling for a second referendum now carries just as much risk now as Brexit did in June 2016, neither side can necessarily guarantee what the future of their relationship will look like. The benefit to adhering to the initial vote, is that the British people will be able to control the next steps.
Before going full steam ahead with a second campaign, Blair, Sorrell and Soros should have an understanding about the historical context. And crucially they must ask themselves not what type of relationship they want with the EU but what type of relationship the EU will want with the UK.