Giles Merritt assesses British remorse for leaving the EU and suggests that Brussels should weigh the advantages of a constructive new relationship.
Britains mood shift on Brexit has been much like Ernest Hemingways celebrated description of how bankruptcy occurs: Two ways; gradually, then suddenly.
After six years of bitter division, pollsters now report that two-thirds of people theyve interviewed say leaving the European Union was a mistake.
Remorse over Brexit has been further boosted by the abrupt resignation by former prime minister Boris Johnson of his parliamentary seat.
Occasioned by scandal connected with the Covid pandemic, the departure of Brexits chief architect has fanned the flames of anti-Brexit sentiment.
Yet the UKs two main political parties are still cautious about the sort of post-Brexit relationship they envisage with the EU.
Both fear the outcome of next years expected general election may be decided by voters in the economically depressed red wall constituencies of northern England that in 2016 voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
In the governing Conservative party, the split between diehard Brexiteers and more Europe-minded realists like prime minister Rishi Sunak is widening into a chasm.
The latter half of the Tories 13 years in power has been marred not only by Brexits costs but also by incompetence, scandal and Covid, so their chances of re-election are dwindling fast.
The basis of a new relationship will be determined in Brussels, not London
The Labour party is increasingly confident of victory, but is wary of recanting its acceptance of “the peoples will” on Brexit.
Only the centrist Liberal Democrats are firmly in favour of a constructive new relationship with the EU, but as a political force they are handicapped by Britains archaic yet seemingly unchallengeable first past the post electoral system.
The post-Brexit options available to future British governments have started to be debated in the more serious media.
Most commentators nevertheless miss the point that it really wont be up to the UK to decide.
The basis of a new relationship will be determined in Brussels, not London, even though there are few signs on the EU side that much thought is being given to this.
So what sort of relations should be re-established?
Although theres a once bitten twice shy sentiment in many EU capitals, theres also a feeling that the Ukraine conflict demands a heightened security involvement that cannot be satisfied only by the UKs membership of NATO.
As to trade, no one can say how far EU member states may wish to go towards re-admitting Britain to the single market and the customs union, although few if any want discredited former premier Boris Johnsons surly and un-cooperative Hard Brexit to persist.
Brexits disruption has been to no ones advantage
The EUs need to restore positive relations with Britain goes much further than security and defence.
The UK is a major player in Europe despite the self-inflicted damage of Brexit. Frankfurt, Paris and Milan have benefitted to some degree from banking and financial services that have deserted the City of London, but the UK still remains a global hub for these.
Brexits disruption has been to no ones advantage, which is why Europes major banks are pressuring the EU to allow Londons clearing houses the right to continue with euro-denominated transactions.
A clear signpost towards a return to cross-channel cooperation on financial services has been the announcement of an EU-UK Financial Regulatory Forum.
The UKs universities and high-tech companies are also an asset the EU undoubtedly wants to retain as a European strength hence Brussels willingness to bend over backwards in the ongoing discussions over Britains participation in the 95 billion-plus Horizon science and research programme.
On both sides of the English Channel, Brexit has been a costly setback for business and industry, with damage limitation now the leitmotif in many sectors.
Less discussed elements of any new equation accommodating British and continental European interests are more nebulous, but no less important. Geopolitical considerations and the challenges that face the EU itself are going to be essential factors.
Slogans like Global Britain have been shown to cut no ice for the UK in its dealings with China, while Brussels regrets the absence of the UKs expertise and reputation in the Far East.
For all its faults and its reputation as the perpetual awkward squad when it was in the EU, Britain in fact played a far more constructive and clear-headed role than it is nowadays credited with.
An incoming Labour government in late 2024 or early 2025, possibly in tandem with the Liberal Democrats, will certainly want to negotiate a new treaty with the EU.
Its time for policymakers in Brussels and the national capitals to focus on its nature and content.
*This article first appeared on the Friends of Europe website and is reproduced with kind permission.
*The views expressed by the author of this article, Giles Merritt, are not necessarily those of The Bulrushes