It’s tempting to go full Farage. Not, perhaps, the pint, cigarette and cartoon grin – there won’t be too many pro-European takers for that look – but surely the many millions feeling despondent at this week’s formal triggering of Brexit can learn from the arch-Brexiteer.
Why shouldn’t remainers draw inspiration from those who refused to accept the 1975 referendum ratifying Britain’s entry into the European club and agitated tirelessly for a second vote? Surely the dogged persistence of a Nigel Farage, Bill Cash or John Redwood is a model for the 48% to follow.
Pro-Europeans should wave aside those who’ll mock them as eccentrics, bores or hopeless nostalgists, and insist that there’s no shame in seeking to turn back the clock. After all, over several decades that’s what the anti-EU crowd campaigned for – and they won. The anti-Brexiteers should saddle up and prepare for the long ride, just as the Eurosceptics did all those years ago. Their task will be to monitor every squeak out of Brussels, every clause in every parliamentary bill, with forensic attention, fighting the 2016 decision on the great Europe question until the tide turns back their way, as assuredly it will.
It’s an unappetising prospect, isn’t it? For one thing, it threatens to take too damned long. Even if, say, MP Chuka Umunna were willing to be the Cash of his generation, history suggests he could be waiting until 2057 for Britons to have another say. And not many are blessed with the stamina of Bill Cash.
It’s especially true of the kind of liberals who long to remain in the EU. To emulate the Eurosceptics of yore, remainers would have to commit to unbending pessimism. They’d have to be ready to stand on the sidelines, shaking their heads and dreaming of a brighter yesterday, before the country went to the dogs.
In the coming two years of negotiations between Britain and the 27 EU states the UK is leaving behind, pro-Europeans would have to feast on every crumb of bad news, savouring the bitter flavour of vindication as they reminded voters that “we told you so”. They would have to circle, vulture-like, over the Brexit process, willing it to fail, delighting in setbacks and welcoming economic decline as proof they were right all along.
And all this would be predicated on the hope that, if Brexit does work out as badly as remainers predicted, Britons will be rushing to return to the bosom of the EU – when they’re surely more likely to become even more resentful of Brussels, blaming it for punishing our secession. A country feeling both poorer and humiliated is unlikely to turn towards liberal internationalism.
So if indefatigable, Redwoodian monomania is not a lead remainers can follow, what’s the alternative? Some are drawn to a version of surrender rebranded as realism. They declare remain to be a lost cause: Britain is leaving the EU and we’d better get used to it. Outside Scotland, there is no major opposition party with the will to stop it, so the best anti-Brexiteers can do is hope that something comes along. After all, if 2016 proved anything, it is that world events are unpredictable.
There is talk that, one day, there might be scope for an outer ring of EU associate members – that might include Britain
Neither option, intransigence or capitulation, is that appealing, but happily there is some space in between. The starting point would be an admission that Brexit is happening and that Theresa May has opted for the hard version, almost certainly leaving both the single market and the customs union. But that still leaves the possibility of an even harder Brexit – and pro-Europeans’ task now is to resist it. Admitting that several rooms are on fire doesn’t free you from the obligation to stop the entire house burning to the ground.
In practice, that means limiting the damage. It could mean arguing for greater access to European markets, even if that entails some jurisdiction by the European court of justice. Or urging new immigration rules that don’t seal up the border to all outsiders.
During the talks, pro-Europeans should constantly be holding any emerging deal up to the light of the leave campaign’s own promises. Is this deal giving Britain the same access it previously enjoyed to European markets? Will the status of Britons living in the EU remain unchanged? Will £350m be coming back to the NHS? If the answer to any of these is no then, says Will Straw, who ran the Stronger In campaign, pro-Europeans can justifiably say that leave won the 2016 vote on “a false prospectus”.
There will be constant points of pressure, and pro-Europeans have to use each one to push the Brexiteers away from the hardest of hard Brexits. They will have allies. Regions anxious to know the funds they receive in EU subsidy will be replaced; businesses determined to preserve their trading arrangements; universities and students keen to hold on to the much-valued Erasmus programme.
At the same time, pro-Europeans can demand that ties remain close in all kinds of areas – from aviation to science to policing. They can urge co-operation on, say, climate change. Sunder Katwala of British Future says the trick is to seek close links without “making a fetish of EU membership”.
That doesn’t mean pro-Europeans need to give up their dreams. There is talk that, one day, there might be scope for an outer ring of EU associate members – one that might include Britain, Norway, Turkey and Ukraine among others, all enjoying access to the single market. Or there could arise a new structure centred on defence and foreign policy co-operation, one that would give Britain a seat close to, if not at, the European table. As Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform puts it: “Once we’re out, we can get closer” – after, that is, we have felt “the chill wind of solitude”.
The years ahead will not be easy for pro-Europeans. The official opposition party is currently unwilling to stand unambiguously for this cause, so the cause will have to find other advocates. Striking the right tone is a challenge too. Calling last weekend’s rally Unite for Europe might have been a mistake: to win over soft leavers, it needs to be clear that this movement is for the sake of Britain, seeking what’s best for this country as well as the wider world. (“Pro-Europeans” is not an ideal term, for the same reason.) It cannot be draped in the blue and gold of the EU flag when so few Britons see those colours as part of their identity.
So a tough future looms. But when you feel your stamina flag, just look at the gurning face of Nigel Farage, who stuck at it and prevailed in the end. If he can do it, so can we.