Why Britain may never rejoin the EU
Less than three years after Brexit, Bregret is widespread, a clear majority thinking that Britain was wrong to leave the EU. Much analysis of this trend assumes that public opinion will be influential, reshaping Britain’s relationship in the short-term, some hoping for Single Market membership, and/or medium term, others hoping that Britain will rejoin the EU.
This assumption is understandable – in liberal democracies, public opinion is crucial – yet misconceives the Brexit process. Institutional theory, the approach favoured on this Substack, enables a more nuanced understanding. The referendum was a critical juncture, during which public opinion was key. Whilst the result was contingent - had things gone slightly differently, Remain might have won – it locked UK-EU relations into a specific path, the Conservative victory in the 2019 election confirming this.
Now, public opinion on UK-EU relations is comparatively unimportant, having little capacity to influence events and being liable to change in the medium term. For at least 15-20 years, Britain is locked out of the EU. Not only is rejoining unpopular in crucial red wall seats, making it taboo among major parties, but the EU would scarcely welcome this. The bloc has moved on from Brexit and does not wish to engage in quasi-permanent negotiations with a capricious Britain. Certain federalists are flatly opposed, integration accelerating since Brexit.
Crucially, public opinion will change during this absence. Path dependence is a key concept in institutional theory, borrowing from concepts in evolutionary theory. When a group within a species is isolated from other members of its species, geographical barriers often being involved, the isolated group enters a new developmental trajectory, reflecting its new environment. Britain may not be isolated from Europe in the long term (see below), yet will embark upon a new path dependency in the medium term.
How will public opinion develop? Whilst it is difficult to be specific, this will reflect the comparative advantages of post-Brexit Britain. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement was more liberal than some expected, guaranteeing free trade, yet entails significant restrictions on trade between Britain and EU. Resultingly, the British economy may turn inwards. If this is so, it will involve the creation of constituencies who are committed to the new status quo, jobs and identities becoming bound up in it. As classic studies of path dependency show, such constituencies stabilize politico-economic systems.
In the case of post-Brexit Britain, these constituencies may be the SMEs who benefit from deregulation, the fishermen who have better access to British waters and/or the low-skilled workers who enjoy reduced competition with immigrants. This would not entail the disappearance of British pro-Europeans – throughout British history, there have always been advocates of closer links with the continent – yet suggests that their influence may become diminished or neutralized. For example, the creation of pro-Brexit constituencies might offset the disappearance of elderly pro-Brexit cohorts.
Whilst poor economic performance may characterize this equilibrium, initial reports associating Brexit with lower growth, this might not be as destabilizing as some predict. Many countries endure poor economic performance over long time periods, post-imperial Britain suffering this fate. Given that Britain has no plausible medium-term route back into the EU, the country will have to adjust, as it did after the end of empire. Of course, low growth is unlikely to contribute to a healthy political culture. A post-Brexit equilibrium may be adversarial, beneficiaries of the new system facing off against malcontents.
There are few obvious comparisons with Britain, yet Turkey is relevant, the blocking of accession in the 2000s frustrating Turkish liberals as British liberals are now discouraged. Had Turkey joined the EU, it is difficult to foresee the country becoming as authoritarian as it did, blocked membership changing the trajectory of Turkish democracy. Britain will not become as illiberal as Turkey, having a more liberal tradition, yet, like Turkey, may be further from EU membership in 20 years. Once countries embark on a different path, it is difficult to reverse.
Of course, we cannot be sure how things will turn out. As Jared Diamond observes, Britain’s status as a large island near the European mainland means that it will always have an on-off relationship with Europe. This has been historically critical, some arguing that the existence of the UK has precluded the emergence of a unified European state, à la Russia or China. Whilst this long-term trend suggests that, one day, Britain will again integrate with some form of Europe, this may not happen in our lifetimes.
For some, this is wonderful; for others, it is terrible; for the institutional theorist, it just is.
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