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.
Interesting article - thank you. It is such a relief to read something on Brexit that isn't being written from inside the referendum's Leave and Remain boxes. Still! Six and a half years on! The last similarly open-minded and realistic piece I saw before this one was on the UK in a Changing Europe website, by Derrick Wyatt, entitled 'Should Britain join a more federal EU or be its ally and trading partner?'. Wyatt looks ahead and sees Britain either having to accept a higher degree of Euro-federalism than it was ever previously prepared to accept, or alternatively settling for a Canada-USA-like relationship, staying independent, but as a close trading partner and military ally of the EU. All the best for Christmas and the New Year.
I'd also say some element of Bregret is linked to the UK's wider economic malaise, most of which is less about Brexit than the fall out from Covid and Putin's murderous invasion of Ukraine. As the system adjusts these impacts will reduce (as will some of the earliest and largest impacts of Brexit, as companies get used to new rules and regulations*) and the economy will improve, which will likely reduce Bregret.
* that's both new rules and regulations tied to trading with continent, but also potentially rules and regulations which are introduced or dropped because we've left the single market
Really interesting. New subscriber! I’d throw in that what the EU becomes—and what the U.K. becomes outside it—will have a lot of influence on national debates in EU member states about the costs and benefits of EU membership. The EU, while referred to as a block, and increasingly integrated, remains 27 separate countries voluntarily participating in an ambitious project. With that in mind, Euroscepticism is far from being an odd British quirk and while Norway and Switzerland have thrived while having never formerly joined, should the U.K. thrive in the longer term having left, that will place electoral pressure on pro-EU parties and coalitions, in the face of a disgruntled eurosceptic vote flirting with the idea of a painful, difficult but ultimately potentially healthy divorce.
This is why I read you, Tom. By a wide margin, the most intelligent of a recent crop of articles I've read 'analysing' what current polling on Brexit might mean.
Many otherwise solid commentators seem not to fold in the possible emergence of things that you outline here. They also seem to forget that the EU has already moved on. You get this vibe, living here in France, where it's all about things like celebrating record Franco-Irish trade now that there's only one English-speaking member of the community.
The impression that most of the commentary gives is of a solipsistic view of Britain's objectives and ambitions. As if everything turns on British public sentiment.
Another thing that's rarely acknowledged is that actual 'Bregret' is rare, in that people who voted Leave may be disappointed in how it ended up so far do not generally translate into people who think it was wrong to leave. As I understand it, the growing anti-Brexit sentiment is welling up from younger people who didn't - or were too young in 2016 to - vote.
In the end, all this analysis of polls therefore misses what actually matters, which is why it's so refreshing to have read your piece.
I think "Bregret" is utterly overstated. It's hard to separate the negative consequences of COVID, lockdowns, inflation, decades of poor economic management, European decline and increased energy prices from EU membership. Being inside the EU would insulate against none of these.
Two things happening at the same time doesn't mean one causes the other.
There's also a misunderstanding in Britain "You can't blame the EU now!" as people don't realise it will take generations to replace, overhaul, repeal or decide about how EU laws are applied in post-Brexit Britain. The Brexit date was simply a point at which that process could start, and a great many laws (for example GDPR) are still in force as there isn't parliamentary time, will or talent to tackle the mountain of EU legislation.
I always felt that Britain was a poor fit for the EU legal machinery due to the different structure of the legal system - precedent is fast and reliable, but it lead to the UK adopting some fairly idiosyncratic views of EU law very quickly. The rest of Europe could gradually reach a consensus over a decade, when Britain had dived head first into a single interpretation inside a year.
I can't see enough reliable support for a join referendum for a long time, and the UK would be offered even worse terms than De Gaulle gave us half a century ago. With increasing anti-Atlanticism in Europe Britain becomes a less attractive partne.
> Had Turkey joined the EU, it is difficult to foresee the country becoming as authoritarian as it did
Turks elected Erdogan though, so this seems to be saying that the EU would have been able to override their democratic choices just like they have been trying to do so to the eastern European countries who elected conservative leaders.
For me, the point of Brexit was and still is to insulate the UK from mistakes and dystopian policies by the EU, which are inevitable given its structure. Just like how China managed to pretend to be capitalist and modernizing for a while, before crushing its local tech industry and starting a rollback to the 1970s, so too is the EU doomed to destroy its member states. Give it 50 years and I think nobody will believe Brexit was a bad idea because the EU will be in such a bad way. Even if the UK does nothing beyond NOT engaging in similar self-destruction, it will come out ahead.
BTW: don't trust panel polls like YouGov. They are deeply unrepresentative on anything about social issues and the polling firms know it. The Daily Sceptic had some stuff on this during COVID. The sort of people who answer surveys all day aren't normal and it can't be fixed by just weighting some people more than others. It supposedly creates a "pro social" bias. The population is more conservative and individualist than these polls show, but those sorts of people don't waste their time answering an endless stream of surveys.
I think the majority of reported "Bregret" is actually dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs (strikes, inflation, incompetence, decay, immigration) in the UK than anything related to Brexit. Even mighty Germany is suffering many of the same things.
I find it indicative that rather than celebrating some of the things that can be done now Britain is no longer in the EU, they are either glossed over or forgotten. Tackling the cost of living crisis through VAT cuts on some products, or a drastic cut to the overall rate, could have been a good opportunity. The vaccine rollout in the UK was notably faster in Britain than the EU - it just turned out not the be the cure we hoped.
Sadly the lack of talent in the Conservative government, and the impact of the past 30 years of defense and Russian policies, aren't really related to Brexit but are making Britain a worse place today.
The UK left the EU on the basis of a false prospectus: that the EU would be desperate to continue to trade with the UK so would give the UK a great "cake and eat it" trade deal that would allow trade much as before but without following the rules of the Singe Market. Theresa May said that she wanted the UK to leave the SM, CJEU and Customs Union while trading and cooperating with Europe as before (ie trading and cooperating as before while opting out of the systems of rules that the UK had helped to create to facilitate trade and cooperation). This is all nonsense, but became widely accepted. The UK was subject to a great deal of anti-EU propaganda for about 20 years from certain MPs and sections of the media, and the push-back from the rest of the media and politicians was inadequate.
Rather than thinking about re-joining the EU, it would be better to consider the weaknesses in our politico-media system that allow myths to become accepted and lead to foolish decisions.