Martin Wolf, the Chief economics correspondent at the FT, just before Xmas published a piece of clickbait, entitled, “Britain won’t rejoin the EU for decades — if ever”, with a tag line, “The sensible approach for the UK is to seek a closer and more co-operative relationship with Brussels”.

He starts with an alleged piece of mystic folklore, that one can’t cross the same river twice, which stripped of its source and supposed wisdom of its age is clearly nonsense. Of course, you can cross a river twice and anyone that commutes from Canary Wharf to Westminster does it twice a day.

This article looks at what Wolf said, refutes the arguments, exposes the lack of evidence and concludes that it’s a failed project and that failure and the prospect of rejoining cannot be suppressed.

What Wolf said!

Wolf acknowledges the shift in public opinion, but argues that a serious attempt to rejoin would cause uncertainty, tear British politics apart and that the deal we had has gone and asserts without any evidence that the EU is changing in a way that the British people find even more unacceptable than they wrongly did seven and a half years ago.


Wolf says very little on economic certainty but ignores the currently consensus that Brexit has cost 4% of GDP.  Under the Tories hard Brexit there is no certainty on many issues, and what certainty there is offers the options to small businesses of failure or emigration. Furthermore, businesses still have to conform to EU rules either because they want to export, or because they require inputs from those that do.

Political Priorities

Wolf also argues that it will be a drain on both political capital of the incoming government and of parliamentary time because the key macro-economic issues to fix, are growth and productivity. These will be much easier to fix inside the single market rather than outside. An incoming government may find they need to do more than tinker around with the “Trade and Co-operation Agreement” which expires at the end of June next year. This is a day one issue for the next Government.

As for those who say we shouldn’t reopen the issue; the Brexit divide remains real, pretending that it can be ignored as an imagined acceptable compromise is an act of intellectual dishonesty. The one thing that the 2016 referendum shows, is that, through design, referendums don’t heal division and the criminality on the vote leave side makes it even harder for those that lost to consent.


While we need to consider how UK would take the decision to rejoin the single market or even the EU, we also need to think of what terms we would get and what assurances the EU would need to let us back in.

The UK’s normal constitutional processes do not require a referendum, although the EU might ask the UK to hold a referendum to show them that the policy has popular support. This assurance is needed not just because we can’t, and shouldn’t, return as semi-detached as we were even under Blair and while Wolf reminds us of Farage’s disgraceful antics in the European Parliament, what will be remembered for longer is the consistent and persistent requests for opt outs and refusal to cooperate in programmes required by other member states by British governments of both colours.

The terms which we will need to accept are quite different from the terms we had when left. The old deal’s gone! The UK will lose its rebate, and have to sign up to the whole EU acquis, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and agree to join Schengen and the Euro, although I would expect to be able to an agreed a delay in joining the Euro.

The EU has changed.

The obvious changes within the EU are the NextGen EU programme, common borrowing (but only for the Euro) and a joint response to the Ukraine war. The reaction to the pandemic is also making changes as the member states look at the advantages that collective action brought. There is also the need to share and act in solidarity with those countries bearing the burden in welcoming refugees.

The bald assertion that it’s changed and is thus unacceptable is a barrier in Wolf’s own mind. Any changes in the EU need to be evaluated albit as a package to see if we want them or not but we must all leave behind the shopkeeper/accountant mentality and recognise that any opportunity to get a bespoke deal was destroyed by the Johnson administration.

There are many who say that the current polling majority in favour of rejoining will weaken once the terms are known; we don’t really know. If the choice was wealth vs sovereignty, I think most people will value the personal gains in sovereignty to be exceedingly low.

Will the EU become something unacceptable to the UK?

Wolf also says, “Rejoining must surely include a commitment to the creation of a more integrated EU.“  I am not sure this is true. Further integration or at least its speed, is being mitigated by the need to create a streamlined decision-making process and a welcoming landing pad for the next set of countries to join. The western Balkans have been waiting too long and there is an appetite to ensure that Ukraine despite it not meeting the Copenhagen criteria is welcomed rapidly.

These vectors have led to two responses within the EU, one is a two-speed Europe, the other steps towards federalism. These positions my best be summed up respectively in the report by the Franco-German committee of experts and their report “Sailing the high seas…”, the counter to this is the European Parliament resolution proposing the extension of competences, the empowerment of the European Parliament and the weakening of the veto on the European Council. Further integration may not be the answer that even the EU itself chooses.   


The only glimmer truth in the article is that the UK will not be able to rejoin the European Union until it’s ready to be a good citizen. On the question of terms, we will be in the position of having to take whatever is offered. In order to get the maximum benefit from membership of the European Union for its citizens the UK needs to embrace the totality of the project, the building of a common peaceful demos and citizenship.

It seems to me that a number of leavers are recognising that they’ve lost politically and are trying to build barriers or fatal waypoints to rejoining,  to try and get an outcome they had an opportunity to have created earlier but didn’t. They are making the argument that the EU will not have us back, that it has changed, and changed in such a way that even the polling majority in favour of rejoining would not accept it once they learned the terms. The first assertion is wrong, the second in reality is not known.

Those who through polemic try to make rejoining harder must not be allowed to add intellectual barriers to the debate, certainly not those based on fantasy and factual void. We now know the Brexit has damaged the UK economy and there has been no increase in sovereignty. It’s a failed project.

The big fiction, left unsaid in this article and in Labour’s policy debates, is that Britain’s politics and economy can be fixed without rejoining at least the customs union and the single market.

I have wondered if there was a lunch where Curtice, Elliot and Wolf got together to decide on such a concerted press campaign of articles, arguing despite the evidence that the current polled majority won’t want to join once they know the terms. Although Curtice says the polls are moving away, Elliot says it’s not as bad as remainers said it will be and Wolf says it won’t happen because of reasons.

 Perhaps! But it ain’t over until people like me say it is.

We can do better than supposed sensibleness
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