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Could Brexit be undone?

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, hold a press conference at Windsor Guildhall, Windsor, England, Monday Feb. 27, 2023. The U.K. and the European Union ended years of wrangling and acrimony on Monday, sealing a deal to resolve their thorny post-Brexit trade dispute over Northern Ireland. (Dan Kitwood/Pool via AP)

Brexit has been like a long divorce, and now most Brits have buyer’s remorse. A survey for The Independent shows more than two-thirds of people in the United Kingdom support a second referendum on membership in the European Union. But is there any pathway for the UK to rejoin the EU family?

The UK announced it would hold a referendum on its membership of the EU in 2013, when the country’s economy was doing well and had recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. Still, in 2016, the country voted to leave. The world was shocked. I was working within the UK government at this time, which showed me how unprepared officials were to handle this outcome.

However, over the next few years, the UK got to work and negotiated its exit for February 2020. Even after the formal exit from the EU, the country remained in the single market until the end of 2020. The reality of implementing these changes for businesses required more time to lessen the economic fallout.

Post-Brexit is a different story. The country is dealing with a shallow recession, high inflation and a modest economic growth of 0.3 percent this year, according to the OECD. While the pandemic and the war in Ukraine compounded Brexit’s negative economic shock, it’s not the only reason public opinion is shifting.

Leading Brexiter Boris Johnson was ousted from British politics last year, mainly due to his personal misconduct. But this was still a signal of the changing tides for Conservatives. Why? Simple demographic math. Tragically, among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 were the elderly. By the time another referendum could be called, many more will not be around to vote again. Younger Brits are more likely to support the EU. This, combined with constant political changes (like Liz Truss lasting only 44 days as prime minister) has increased the number of voters who doubt the government’s ability to take back control.

Many Brexiters’ support is wavering, but is a second referendum likely? The short answer is no. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have provided the perfect scapegoat for the country’s current economic woes. Faithful Brexiters can use this excuse to point out how well the country is faring compared to some of its European colleagues. With Germany experiencing a recession and unrest in France, why should the UK rejoin the struggling EU?

And my friends in Westminster tell me another referendum is not being discussed. At least, not seriously. Labour can’t be seen to rock boats, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is a true Brexit believer.

What really matters is what will happen in the next decade. Will new free trade agreements alleviate the current economic concerns? How well will the Windsor Framework, adopted in March, solve the border issue between Northern Ireland and the EU? The Framework isn’t much more than an economic cushion, designed to improve the flow of goods between the UK and Northern Ireland. But it won’t be fully implemented until 2025. Suffice to say, the long divorce continues.

Could the UK even rejoin the EU if it wanted to? Let’s imagine that down the road another EU referendum did occur and the British public voted to rejoin. Much like the fateful Brexit vote, it’s not a simple yes or no. Some EU member states may reject the UK — after all, there’s precedent from the French, who voted against the UK’s application for membership in the European Economic Community in 1963 and 1967. In addition, member states could require new members to join the eurozone, which may be anathema for Brits who have always preferred their pound sterling. There is also no precedent for a country that has left the EU to rejoin, which means new processes must be established and new rules negotiated. All this will take time. Ultimately, Britain rejoining the EU depends on much more than just London.

A lot could change between now and a possible future referendum, which may cause the UK to recalculate its desire to be a part of the EU. Another war might convince wavering Brits to rejoin. Or climate-related chaos might devastate economies and convince them to stay out. One day Brexit may well be reversed. But that is a long way away, if at all.

What we do know is that Brits are stuck with Brexit … for now.

Katelyn Greer is the former Chief Communication Officer on Brexit, Trade and the Economy for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. She is now the principal of Greer Group LLC.

Tags Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Brexit Britain Europe European Union eurozone Northern Ireland Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak United Kingdom

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