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Cancelling Brexit - what would happen if we changed our mind about leaving the EU?

Ukip, at least, would have something to celebrate.

French President Emmanuel Macron, recently declared, at joint press conference with Theresa May, that until “negotiations come to an end, there is always a chance to reopen the door”. Britain, in other words, could still choose to stay in the European Union.

His words confirmed what most people in the UK – on both sides of the Brexit divide – seem to think: our partners want us to remain; and that it would be better for them if we did. Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue that reversing Brexit is necessary in order to save the European Union. I am not convinced. A Britain that, having voted to leave, then decided to stay would be the worst thing to have happened to the EU. 

Imagine, hypothetically, the following scenario. The Prime Minister comes to realise that a negotiated Brexit will involve a huge bill and continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over key sectors of the British economy, not to mention on going payments into the EU budget. The alternative, a disorderly Brexit, will cause chaos and significantly damage the British economy. Confronted with this choice, and putting the nation before party or personal interest, she decides that, all things being equal, attempting to remain in the EU is her only viable option.

What, then, would our partners make of such a decision? It’s worth noting that their ideas have moved on since the vote. Remember back in June 2016, when European Council President Donald Tusk declared that Brexit could destroy western political civilisation? A few weeks later, in a letter circulated to EU Heads of State and Government prior to the Bratislava summit, he argued that the EU could emerge stronger and more united after Brexit.

Far more significantly, it is worth considering what kind of Britain would rejoin its partners around the EU table. This would be a Britain that had voted to leave, and would be remaining on terms worse than those it had rejected in June (Cameron’s renegotiation was null and void from the moment the result was announced). Despite the odd poll suggesting "Bregret", most surveys show tha the majority of British people still want to see the country reclaim "sovereignty", its money, and its "control over its borders".

How, then, would such a Britain interact with its partners? For one thing, it is hard to see how a British government could ever again approve an EU budget that was acceptable to other member states. Whatever the British people do or don’t know about the budget, they all are aware that the UK pays a significant amount of money into it. Could a Conservative government really append its signature to a document perpetuating this "waste"? And next year, the EU will begin the always-fraught process of negotiating its next multi-year budget.

The EU27's obstructionism would not be limited to the budget. In the months since the referendum, the other member states have made it clear that they see defence co-operation as an area where they can make significant progress. That assumption was squarely based on the absence of the UK. Were we to remain inside, what defence secretary Michael Fallon has referred to as a British "veto", would indeed become one, as opposed to merely a rather ill-advised, and ultimately pointless, delaying tactic. The first victim would be the EU Operational Headquarters, which Britain has been vetoing for years.

Then there is the democratic life of the EU to consider. Who do you think would do best out of a decision to ignore the referendum result in the elections to the European Parliament of 2019? With or without a competent leader, Ukip would no doubt build on its success in 2014 (the first time in modern history that neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a national election). Would the EU thank us for an even greater supply of MEPs committed to its destruction?

And following a Ukip success, history, whilst probably not repeating itself would, in the words of Mark Twain, begin to rhyme. How long before the threat of defections began to weigh on the Prime Minister? How long before the Ukip threat led to a still harsher line on Europe? How long before her (or his) own MPs attempted to twist her arm to promise anther popular vote to lay to rest once and for all the notion of buyers’ regret?

In this they would, of course, have a willing ally in many sections of the media. In the right-wing red tops, a European Union that was already seen as undemocratic would now be cast as quasi-totalitarian for having defied the "democratic will" of the British people. Every law, every ECJ judgment, every pronouncement from any EU figure would be met with a scorn that would make the pre-referendum bile seem positively charming.

Faced with such a backdrop, it is hard to see how the British government could engage positively on any issue with its European partners. Could ministers ever again support EU legislation, however well thought out or necessary it might be? Could a Prime Minister ever attend a European Council except to hector and sneer? How long would it be until the British government took a decision to refuse to comply with a piece of legislation, thereby triggering the most serious crisis in the history of European integration?

Ultimately, what happens will, as ever, boil down to procedure. British Europhiles would do well to reflect carefully on what a British U-turn might mean for an institution they profess to support. Meanwhile, if we at any stage do ask our partners to stop the process, should we really expect them to welcome us back with open arms? Would they not be better advised to assume they’d be better off without us?

Anand Menon is the director of UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs, King’s College London.

Photo: Getty
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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder