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Britain is Bregretful

Britain is Bregretful


A new poll shows that voters regret leaving the EU. But despite Westminster’s silence on the idea of reversing it, there could still be opportunities for a closer relationship between Britain and Brussels


This week, I was talking to a friend who’d recently been in Paris and met Emmanuel Macron. The French president, unprompted, had taken him aside to say that Europe needed Britain and Britain needed Europe; and more than that, Mr Macron said, he would like to see Britain back in the EU. And, for now, he’d certainly like a much closer dialogue both with Rishi Sunak’s government and the leadership of the Labour party. My friend, of course, passed the messages on, both to the government and Keir Starmer’s office.

Having heard that, I’ve seen the whole week – the third anniversary of Britain’s departure from the European Union – in a different light. 

I’ve found myself paying more attention to the suddenly intense diplomatic traffic across the Channel:

  • the fact that King Charles III has chosen to make his first state visit, even before the Coronation, to France next month;
  • that that will come on the heels of Rishi Sunak’s meeting in Paris with President Macron, the first Franco-British summit at the Elysee in nearly five years;
  • and that Michel Barnier, the French former foreign minister and, for three years of ragged relations between Brussels and London, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator, said this week that the door to British entry to the EU “remains open” and, either way, that there remain so many reason and so many ways of working together.

I’m James Harding, the Editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I wanted to say ‘allo, ‘allo, something is up. 

There are some former Remainer ministers – those people who worked in David Cameron’s government – who blame Angela Merkel, at least in part, for losing Britain. In 2016, when she was Germany’s chancellor, they feel she should have done more to find a way through on immigration, more to pull the emergency brake, more to sweeten the deal and keep the UK in.

Well, perhaps it’s time to be paying attention to European capitals again. If Merkel allowed Britain to get away, might Macron be the man who, in more than a small way, rebuilds those bridges? 

If you’ve listened to these voicemails before, you’ll know that I think it’s hard to make the case that Brexit is a better deal for Britain than rejoining the EU. Whatever you thought in 2016, the world has clearly changed since the Brexit referendum. It’s even harder now to make the argument that we’re going to be stronger on our own. Consider the lessons we’ve learned about global supply chains from the pandemic, about energy interdependence and western security reliance in the face of a war in Europe, the realisation that we’re living in an age of a new continentalism – the US, the EU, China and India, each doling out subsidies to try and control the industries of the future.

This week, an extraordinary poll from an unlikely source – Unherd working with Focaldata – showed that I’m not the only one to think that Brexit isn’t working. Britain is, to coin a phrase, Bregretful: in 629 out of 632 constituencies in Britain, the majority of people agree with the statement “Britain was wrong to leave the EU”. And, as older Leavers die and younger Remainers reach voting age, the balance against Brexit looks set to keep creeping closer to 60-40. 

For now, of course, polls all seem to show that there’s no majority public support for rejoining the EU. And, a small point this, there’s no political party – not the Lib Dems, not Labour and, of course, not the Conservatives – who are making the case for it. And you can understand why no British politician fancies their chances at persuading the British people that they were wrong, that they need to admit their mistake, say sorry and ask to rejoin the EU.

But, in one sense, party politics and public sentiment are drifting further apart. The Westminster parties all say Brexit is settled; they say their job is to make Brexit work. The public are having Bregrets; they want to make Britain work.

And this, surely, is where Paris comes in. If President Macron is reaching out, there is a path back to a meaningful relationship between Britain and its neighbours. 

Last May, Macron outlined his vision of a European Political Community, one that would be a new European organisation, one that allowed for democracies in Europe with shared values to cooperate on national security, on energy and climate and greater freedom of movement particularly for young people. And it’s hard to see why Rishi Sunak would come to that idea with anything other than an open mind, and, better still, an out-stretched hand. 

The UK’s engagement in Macron’s EPC would, in turn, help London to tackle two particularly self-defeating elements of Brexit, the departure from the Horizon programme for scientists and the Erasmus programme for students. And while London and Paris are salami slicing problems, they might choose to set up a separate track for working on agricultural produce and phytosanitary regulation, so that farming doesn’t bog things down.

And then, if there’s a sense of a more constructive relationship at work, then there’d be a logic, as Michel Barnier suggested this week, for working on some shared defence issues, such as cybersecurity and counter-terrorism. And before you know it, you could see a world where Britain and Europe were working closely together and the UK might well be talking about being in the Customs Union, or agreeing a similar arrangement with a different name or, simply, London giving up on the fantasy of regulatory divergence in favour of mutual market monitoring and all the benefits of alignment. 

If the road to Brussels once went through Berlin, for Britain in 2023, it looks today as if it goes straight under the Channel and to Paris.