In the last few weeks the possibilities that the UK may remain in the EU have increased (so called ‘Bremain’). On the one hand, Prime Minister Theresa May decided to postpone a crucial vote in Westminster on the Brexit deal she had negotiated with the EU. On the other hand, the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could decide to unilaterally revoke its decision to leave the EU.
Nevertheless, while the EU has been developing contingency plans for a hard Brexit, it hasn’t really prepared for the scenario where the UK were to remain in the EU. A change of mind by the Brits would have a huge impact on the EU, both short term and long term.
In the short term, Bremain would affect many things that had already been prepared in the EU in light of Brexit – for example, the European Parliament elections, where the re-allocation of EP seats among the other member state could be put into question. Contingency plans must therefore be organized in case of a British withdrawal of Brexit or even a “simple” extension of the negotiation beyond a two months period.
In the long term, it would be ingenuous to believe that the UK could remain in the EU as if nothing had happened. The Brexit referendum and the two years of negotiations have further polarized the UK. The impact this may have in the EU itself should not be underestimated. Moreover, in the past years the EU has also changed and has taken further steps in integration, for instance in the field of defence with the launch of permanent structured cooperation in military affairs. As a result, there will be resistances to integrate back the UK again as if nothing had happened. An even more deeply divided UK staying in the EU would risk contaminating the EU and make it even more dysfunctional.
In our view, therefore, the EU needs to be prepared for the possibility that the British people may ultimately decide to reverse Brexit and stay in the EU. It needs to develop a plan forward to re-integrate the UK, without having it poison the whole European house.
The way for the EU to do so is to assume a clear constitutional differentiation between the internal market, on the one hand, and a political and economic union, on the other. Effectively, there are two Europes in the EU today — one political and economic in nature and another purely focused on market integration. These Europes have coexisted for many years, but Brexit has actually made their difference crystal clear.
In fact, while the UK never bought into the political vision of Europe, it always appreciated European integration as a market integration enterprise. To the point that when it is now leaving the UK, it is seeking to maintain as close as possible a connection to the common market. It is true that the free movement of persons is an exception in that respect. But it is likely easier to make the case for that in the context of a deal focusing exclusively on the internal market and customs union than when integration is entangled in broader political and economic interdependence. Clearly differentiating the internal market from the polity could limit the risks deriving from a decision by the UK to remain in the EU. The UK would no longer participate to all those dimensions of integration, which are political in nature, such as citizenship, justice, foreign affairs and the Eurozone. The political side of integration would thus be clearly decoupled from the market side, hence cordoning of the UK from those fields where it always was a reluctant partner.
This market membership can also be seen as building on the experience of economic integration with Norway and other EEA countries. In fact, there is an increasing support in the UK for a Norway Plus agreement (internal market plus customs union). What we suggest is a version of this but within the EU itself. The advantage for the UK will be to preserve its voice on decision-making on market regulation. The condition: strict respect for the acquis and the fundamental values, such as the rule of law, on which the effective application of EU law depends. This could be expanded to other EEA countries. It should also be open to other more sceptic EU Member States.
This would offer Europe a way to reconcile different visions of integration and solve the Brexit mess. The EU did prepare for a hard Brexit scenario. But it should also be ready for a remain scenario. And yet, because the UK cannot simply be brought back into the EU family as if nothing had happened, it is time for the EU to think seriously about its future and be prepared to clearly differentiate between purely market integration and an economic and political union.