Could Britain rejoin the European Union? People are now posing this unthinkable question after several polls found a majority of British people saying that the Brexit vote in 2016 was a mistake and they would vote to rejoin in a second referendum.
The main driver of this change is the dire state of the economy. Inflation in January was running at 10.1 per cent. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Britain's GDP this year will fall by an annual 0.6 per cent, making it the worst performer in the G7.
Ray Barrell, emeritus professor of economics and finance at Brunel University, said that the shadow of Brexit would continue to reduce growth by up to half a per cent a year for two or three more years. "Real disposable incomes are likely to continue to fall next year,"he said.
Britain's Office for Budget Responsibility said in a forecast that the post-Brexit trading relationship between Britain and the EU would reduce long-run productivity by four percent relative to staying within the EU, with imports and exports both 15 per cent lower.
"New trade deals with non-EU countries will not have a material impact,"it said. "Deals concluded to date either replicate (or roll over) deals that the UK already benefitted from as an EU member state.”
A report last month by YouGov, an international research group based in London, said: "the number of people thinking it was wrong for Britain to vote to leave the EU has increased substantially since mid-2021, with 53 per cent of people saying it was wrong to back Brexit as of November 2022 - January 2023, compared to 34 per cent who still think it was the right decision.”
"Demographically, the biggest difference between those who regret their decision to leave the EU and those still stick to it is their age: those Leave voters who now think Brexit was wrong are considerably younger than those who think it was right,"it said. Time is on the side of the rejoiners; as the years pass, so support to rejoin will rise.
A majority of people see no "Brexit dividend"– the economy is in decline, the National Health Service is in worse condition than in 2016 and immigration remains high.
Immigration is reaching record levels. Government figures published last November showed that, in the year to June 2022, net migration to the U.K. rose to a record high of around 504,000, driven by an increase in the number of non-European Union nationals. An estimated 1.1 million long-term immigrants arrived over the period, up 435,000 on the previous year. The biggest proportion of those leaving Britain were EU nationals.
So could Britain rejoin? No country has left the bloc and later rejoined.
It would be impossible under the Conservative government that pushed Brexit through. But the Labour Party has a 20-point poll lead over the Conservative Party, which is certain to win the next general election.
For the moment, the Labour Party has ruled out rejoining but said that the current Brexit deal needs adjusting. Both parties are lagging behind public opinion and may be forced to catch up.
Overall, European countries favour Britain's return. Michel Barnier, who led the EU's Brexit negotiating team, said that the door was open for Britain to rejoin any time. Philippe Lamberts, co-chair of the Green group in the European Parliament, said that the five main political groupings in the parliament would all favour Britain's re-entry. "It would be my dream scenario,"he said.
The French government is the most hostile. It believes that the EU has worked more smoothly since Brexit.
Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union sets out how a country can join. If Britain wanted to rejoin, it would take this route. EU countries are required to accept the euro and join the Schengen Area, although some countries have negotiated opt-outs from them. If it wanted opt-outs from these two, Britain would have to negotiate them.
As an EU member, it had a financial rebate of around two thirds of its net contribution. It would be unlikely to secure this as an applying member. Any EU country could veto its application. Rejoining would be a long and complicated process.
An article last month in the Financial Times proposed two referenda –one in 2026 on allowing the government to reopen negotiations. If more than 60 per cent voted yes, then it could start talks. Then there would be a second referendum on the terms of the deal.
Negotiations to rejoin would be as complex and controversial as those that led to the Brexit deal. Will British politicians have the stamina and energy for them?