Despite what some Remainers may have you believe, Brexit looks pretty set to happen. With both the government and the official opposition wedded to it taking place (while taking up over 80% of the available vote), it is hard to see what blows it off course. Unless, of course, it is actually impossible for the UK to leave on anything other than really terrible terms and there is a massive, last moment swerve by the UK government as a result. I don’t think this will happen, but of course, you never know about anything in politics these days.
Yet the EU referendum could have as its ultimate result something no one could have possibly foreseen: the creation of genuine pro-European feeling in a significant number of British voters. Before the referendum, passionate pro-Europeanism in the UK was limited to a select group of wonks. These days, I see EU flags everywhere. Granted, I live in London, the very beating heart of this burgeoning feeling – yet it is worth noting one never used to see them even in London. EU membership was one of those things most people just took for granted and didn’t think about much. For instance, a newspaper like The New European would have been hard to imagine pre-referendum; the result seemed to spark something in a group of people that is becoming full throated pro-Europeanism of a type I have witnessed on the continent, but never before in the UK.
Could this be the ultimate fallout from the vote to Leave in June 2016? That a generation and many slightly older than them come to see pro-Europeanism as an essential part of their political identity? This would have many repercussions apart from just the possibility of re-joining the Union at some point in the relatively near future: the UK might re-join on integrationist terms, taking the Euro, the whole lot. A more ironic legacy for Nigel Farage and UKIP is hard to fathom.
Having gone this far, I should sound some warning notes here. One, the actual electoral results of this emerging UK pro-Europeanism is hard to spot. The Lib Dems have campaigned openly on an anti-Brexit ticket – and did worse in sheer percentage terms than they did in 2015, and remain rooted to around 6 or 7% in the polls. Corbyn has been ultra-Brexit with a side of Brexit on the side since June 2016, and yet this hasn’t hurt his support amongst young people at all thus far – which suggests that their pro-Europeanism may not run as deep as some might hope.
The question really comes down to what happens post-March 2019. Does the UK slide fairly seamlessly into a transition period of a couple of years, followed by what anyone would realistically see as a fairly soft Brexit in which most people won’t notice the difference? If so, I think this pro-Europeanism may fade for all but a hardcore bunch. However, if Brexit causes notable changes for the average person on the street, we may then see this pro-Europeanism go up another notch or two, gaining momentum along the way.
I think Remainers are taking the growth of pro-Europeanism in the UK as a given, whatever happens next, while Leavers are dismissing it as a passing fad that will inevitably fade sharply after March of next year. Time will tell who is closer to the truth.