Brexit seems to be going from bad to worse. The governing Conservative Party can’t agree on a plan for leaving the European Union- the Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed plan is opposed by a significant chunk of Conservative MPs and the vast majority of Conservative members. Negotiations have been slow and fraught, with each side accusing the other of intransigence and wishful thinking. Businesses, particularly banks and manufacturers such as Airbus and Jaguar Land Rover, are beginning to panic at the prospect of leaving. The public are increasingly pessimistic about Brexit, yet so far show little sign of getting behind the pro-European cause. Given how badly Brexit is going, Britain’s pro-EU movement ought to be asking itself why this is.
There are several reasons for the persistence of support for Brexit. The first is the lack of enthusiasm for the European Union as an institution, however unpopular its critics may also be. The EU is seen as a vast, nightmarishly complex bureaucracy, which exists only to serve global elites and not the common man. It is perceived as undemocratic, out of touch and irrelevant to everyday life. Unlike in most of continental Europe, the EU is not seen as a builder of peace after WW2. Unlike in the Eastern states, it is not seen as a facilitator of democracy. Nor are the economic benefits of the EU as widely acknowledged- many Britons would rather have control over our regulations than be part of a single regulatory regime, however convenient it may be for trade.
The second reason is that the structural cause of Brexit- a low-wage, low-skilled economy which has endured lethargic growth outside the South East and the university cities- has not been addressed. Most of Britain feels left behind by globalisation, deprived of investment and attention from central government, and not cared about. Remainers, a group too ideologically diverse to have a coherent economic policy programme, cannot resolve the discontent that led to Brexit.
A significant component of British Euroscepticism is opposition to the EU’s free movement of labour. Were Britain to remain in the EU, or even simply in the Single Market, unregulated European migration would continue. Remainers have failed to make the case for free movement, instead arguing in vain the benefits of EU membership are worth enduring immigration to maintain. This is a terrible mistake: free movement is one of the best things about the EU. It makes us all freer and more prosperous. British people can live and worth wherever they want in the EU, so long as they don’t claim welfare. Equally, EU migrants use fewer public services than Brits, and thus are a net economic benefit.
The fourth and presently most important cause of the pro-Europeans’ unpopularity, is that Brexit is seen as a democratic choice that must be respected, however undesirable it may be. Unlike nearly any other policy, Brexit was endorsed via a high-turnout referendum. Thus, it can’t be reversed by a change of government or a shift in the public mood. Most British people believe the government has a duty to leave the EU- not doing so would be violating the people’s wishes. The notion of a second referendum on the terms of the government’s deal is gaining currency, yet lacks the overwhelming levels of support it would need for Parliament to vote for it.
My overall point is that for all of the mentioned reasons, Britain is a fundamentally Eurosceptic country for the time being. It is futile for the country’s pro-Europeans to pretend otherwise. Those who would rather Brexit had never happened, which includes myself, should play the long game. Begin by making the positive case for the EU, without endorsing any specific course of action which isn’t presently realistic. Then if Brexit goes as badly as its opponents say it will, the public mood will have genuinely changed and a chance to re-join will be possible. But simply waiving EU flags at the Proms and decrying the opportunistic demagoguery of the Brexiteers won’t be effective. It took a long time for Eurosceptics to persuade Britain to leave the EU. It will take at least awhile to persuade them to come back.