(Deep breath!) could Britain actually re-join the EU?



From huge delays at Dover to British tourists having their ham sandwiches confiscated upon entry to the Netherlands, you could say that Britain’s exit from the EU has proved somewhat difficult. With just over a month passing since the transition period ended, however, you would expect things to improve as we adjust to our new position outside of the European Union.

But what if things get so bad that we try to re-join the EU and if so, would it even be possible for us to do so? Here at Business Leader, we’ve taken a closer look.

Will we have another pro-European government?

If history is anything to go by, you would have to say it is only a matter of time before this happens. Most governments that preceded Boris Johnson and his pro-Brexit party have been in favour of Britain being a member of the European Community. This dates all the way back to Harold McMillan, who applied for Britain to join the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the European Union, back in 1961.

The next general election isn’t until the 2nd of May 2024, so we could have a pro-European government in just over 3 years. However, a lot can change from now until then and even with this current government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, public favour might still be on their side by that time.

Will we have another EU referendum?

There is also the issue of whether we will have another EU referendum, even with a pro-EU government in change.

After the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, a national referendum on whether we should continue as a member state took place in 1975. Known as the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, the UK voted overwhelmingly to remain with a 67% Yes vote.

So, if history were to repeat itself, that would mean a national referendum on our EU membership again in 2023. However, as Boris Johnson and his pro-Brexit party will still be in power at this time, this seems unlikely.

The next national referendum on the UK’s EU membership didn’t take place until 2016, a gap of 41 years between the two! However, if a pro-EU government were to take power in 2024 and public feeling was overwhelmingly in favour of a return to the EU, we would anticipate a much smaller gap between the most recent referendum and the next one!

Would Britain be able to re-join the EU?

Picture this, it’s 2027, the UK has just held a national referendum on our EU membership, where the public has voted overwhelmingly in favour of us re-joining. So, would we even be able to?

Well, we could apply to re-join. The UK is now considered a third country under EU law and as such, so we could apply to join the EU via the framework in Article 49.

What are the requirements of Article 49?

Under Article 49, to apply to join the EU, a country must:

  • Be a European state
  • Respect and commit to promote Article 2 values. These include human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights
  • Have its application unanimously approved by the Council of the EU
  • Have its application approved by a majority vote of the European Parliament

As a previous member state, it’s likely Britain would be able to commit to the values outlined in Article 2. However, we have proved notoriously difficult to deal with as a member of the EU in the past; David Cameron famously negotiated changes to the terms of our EU membership in 2015/16, but they were never implemented because of the referendum result. So, would the EU welcome us back with open arms?

There are also additional requirements that must be met, which are set out in the 1993 Copenhagen Criteria.

The 1993 Copenhagen Criteria

According to the 1993 Copenhagen Criteria, to become a member of the EU, the country applying must:

  • Have broadly the same values as those in Article 2 but also have sound institutions and a solid system of checks and balances in place
  • Have a functioning and resilient market economy
  • Possess the capacity to implement the EU’s full range of laws and obligations

Again, as previous members, the UK has successfully demonstrated these values previously and could do again in the future. However, so much can change from now until the next referendum (if there is one), and the UK’s economy, rules and standards could stray too far from those set out in the Copenhagen Criteria.

The trade negotiations that took place with the EU during last year’s transition period were also marked by the UK’s desire to stay out of the EU common market and have control over our fishing waters. If the UK continues such a course, it’s likely our rules and standards will fall out of alignment with the EUs. And who could possibly say that we would be willing to make the necessary changes to bring them back in line with theirs?

So will Britain re-join the EU?

There really is no way of knowing at this point. It seems likely that if a pro-EU government were to win the 2024 general election and hold a national referendum on EU membership where the public vote in favour of re-joining, that government would make the necessary changes to our rules and standards that would enable us to re-join.

But a pro-EU government victory in 2024 is no certainty by any means. We also have no idea how the Brexit experiment and ongoing battle with COVID will impact us – and the EU – from now until then.