There’d be no special status second time round
If there was one thing that won the Scottish Independence referendum for No (or Remain in current parlance), it was the currency question. The uncertainty surrounding what currency an independent Scotland would use, whether it would be forced into the Euro, which central bank – if any – would underpin the financial system and so on was not only a massive inhibitive in its own right but also encapsulated the wider uncertainties of leaving the Union.
As such, one dog that surprisingly hasn’t barked so far is that self-same currency question. Presumably, that’s because it’s not immediately on the table: leave or remain, Britain will continue to use the Pound Sterling. However, despite George Osborne’s comments today, that leaving would be a “one-way door”, echoing David Cameron’s assertion that there’d be “no turning back” on an exit, the truth is that neither Leave nor Remain is necessarily for ever.
Just as it’s absurd for proponents of Leave to characterise a vote for Remain as a mandate for Ever Closer (and rapid) Union, despite the deal reached back in February, despite the obvious disquiet at the current level of integration to the UK and despite the rising Euroscepticism across the continent, so it would be equally wrong to claim an eternal mandate for Leave, should that side win.
But therein lies the problem. Britain has been here before. Walking out on involvement in the 1950s meant that the EEC was built entirely to the design of others. It’s taken half a century of late arrivals, special pleading, sulks, rows, opt-outs and vetoes to arrive at a position where Britain has carved out its own position; one which is still very far from perfect and in all probability, some way short of where it would have been had Britain not given France and (West) Germany twenty years head start.
One question that Leave has played up recently is ‘would you choose to join if we weren’t currently members?’, the implicit answer being ‘no’. The purpose of the question is to try to sidestep the uncertainty argument but leaving aside the fact that we are currently members so the question’s facile, several countries are currently trying to join – as Leave has not been slow to point out. True, they’d all be net beneficiaries of the budget but they’d still be giving up substantial levels of absolute sovereignty, including signing up to the Euro.
Is it possible that Britain, once out of the EU, might decide that the grass wasn’t greener after all? Not immediately, certainly, but it’d turn very much on events. One major reason that Britain wanted ‘in’ in the 1960s and 1970s was that the continent was doing rather better than the UK. Similarly, one of Leave’s strongest arguments is to ask why we’re shackled to one of the world’s worst-performing areas. That relationship would have to flip again for the EU to start looking attractive once more.
Of course, there’d have to still be an EU to apply to rejoin. A Brexit, particularly if combined with an intransigent stance by the Brussels elite towards member states and their electorates and/or more financial turbulence in the Eurozone may produce a domino effect that brings the whole thing down. But such predictions have been made before and fallen very far short of the mark. Some Eurocrats – Juncker, for one – still do not seem to understand that the EU is facing an existential crisis and that the Brexit debate is just one aspect of it, but others – Tusk, for example – do seem to. When electorates are forcing the choices on the EU of change or die, we shouldn’t automatically assume that it’ll pick ‘die’.
Ironically, Britain could be leaving at just the moment when reform is becoming not just a possibility but a necessity. If Leave is for ever then that’s not a problem. Although Britain’s only been able to win its opt-outs and so on by fighting from the inside whereas new members have to sign up to the whole package, Leave would argue that Brexit is itself the biggest opt-out there is and as such, one that renders the mini versions irrelevant – which is true unless Britain does indeed think about the hokey-cokey option. At that point, the EU would hold all the cards: re-joining would mean Eurozone, Schengen and the rest.
So why hasn’t Remain made more of the risk? One reason is that it doesn’t easily distil down to ten words or fewer and as such has been crowded out for simpler slogans and more obvious threats, such as today’s of leave being a ‘one-way door’. Similarly, the scenario involves perhaps decades while most voters’ concerns are immediate. It also implies an indecisiveness that is of itself unappealing and which suggests something of the ‘too poor and too wee’ mockery with which the SNP sought to characterise the No campaign in 2014.
But for all that, there’ve been enough opportunities in lengthy interviews and debates to raise what is a legitimate point. Bad legislation can usually be repealed. Bad governments can be replaced. But while a referendum decision can be reversed in due course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the status quo ante will be on offer. It wouldn’t be here and the voters should know that.