This leading EU politician explains why Britain is likely to rejoin after Brexit

Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament's Brexit Steering Group.

Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group.
Philippe Lamberts

  • There is a very strong chance Britain will rejoin the EU after Brexit, argues MEP Philippe Lamberts, a leading member of the EU Parliament’s Brexit steering group.
  • Lamberts believes Theresa May’s commitment to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland leaves the UK with little choice but to consider a return.
  • He says the UK will return to the EU after a lengthy Brexit transition.
  • Lamberts believes the alternative option of mirroring Norway’s semi-detached relationship with the EU will ultimately not be acceptable to Britain.

LONDON – Britain is likely to rejoin the EU after a long transition phase, according to a senior EU politician.

Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, who sits on the European Parliament’s influential Brexit Steering Group, told Business Insider that the only way for Britain to honour its commitments in Ireland was to retain partial single market membership, which he said could trigger a chain of events leading the UK to reclaim full EU membership.

He explained that rejoining the EU could be the only option open to the UK unless it breaks its commitment to prevent the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland.

“If – and it’s a big if – the UK wants to keep the Good Friday Agreement, the only satisfactory option is full [EU] membership,” Lamberts told Business Insider. “That is the only logical conclusion.”

His argument is based on the premise that the EU will “force” the UK to recognise the commitments it made in December and honour the terms of the Good Friday Agreement by avoiding a hard border in Ireland.

The UK for its part insists it will find a solution which avoids a hard border in Ireland and takes the UK out of the single market, which Lamberts described as a “contradiction” which was “not based on reality.”

Ultimately, he said, that contradiction could lead Britain to reconsider its EU membership.

Lamberts emphasised that the scenario was only a “possibility,” but said his “obsession” was “to make sure we do not make that possibility impossible.” That would involve offering Britain a lengthy transition period in which Britain could “digest what it really means to be a member of the European Union and what it really means not to be a member.”

Lamberts said he relayed his argument “behind the closed doors of the Brexit Steering Group,” which meets with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier on a weekly basis. He said the scenario could play out like this:

1. Northern Ireland prevents May from getting the sort of Brexit she’s promised

Theresa May

REUTERS/Toby Melville

The EU last week published a draft bill on the terms of Britain’s EU divorce which includes a “fall back option” to keep Northern Ireland signed up to single market rules on goods – called “Option C” – after Brexit unless the UK can propose a working alternative.

The UK insists it will both avoid a hard border in Ireland – honouring its commitment to “no new regulatory barriers” on the island – and take the entire country out of the single market. But Lamberts, like other senior EU politicians, rejected the idea the two scenarios were compatible.

He said the argument was a “contradiction” and a case of Britain “denying reality, as they denied in the past that they had any financial obligations to the European Union” before agreeing to pay a £39 billion divorce bill. The EU itself says it is open to a “better idea” from the UK than the fall-back option, but none has been forthcoming so far.

If the UK did keep Northern Ireland signed up to single market rules on goods, he said the UK would likely seek a deal for the region which also included services, because the bulk of the UK’s economy lies in the services sector rather than in goods.

“You could limit membership of the single market in Northern Ireland to those areas that are relevant to the Good Friday agreement, which is what the UK committed to [in December],” Lamberts said.

“But when you also look at the interests of the UK which are mostly in the services sector, that would be shooting themselves in the foot, because it plays to the advantage of the EU27 who have a net positive balance towards the UK in goods.

“It would be stupid for the British government to be happy with a single market just for goods. It would insist on having a single market for services – and then you are in the full single market,” he said.

2. If May wants to prevent a hard border, Britain has to stay tied to the EU.

Michel Barnier Northern Ireland

Charles McQuillan / Getty

Brexit secretary David Davis has already confirmed that any deal which applies to Northern Ireland would apply to the rest of the UK, and any move to keep Northern Ireland in the single market would immediately prompt Scotland – which voted against Brexit – to seek the same arrangement.

If Northern Ireland is in the single market, the UK would inevitably move to keep the rest of the country within it too, Lamberts argues.

“If the British government is serious about saying it will not contemplate internal legislative divergence within the UK, the entire UK has to stay in the single market,” he said.

3. The ‘Norway option’ will not be an acceptable alternative to full membership

Norway is signed up to single market rules but has no veto over the rules the EU sets. While this option would potentially be on the table for Britain, Lamberts said that arrangement would represent a “loss of sovereignty” and prompt the question: “What is the point of Brexit?”

“If you find yourself into a single market without sitting at the table, like Norway is, that [represents] a loss of sovereignty. I won’t use the expression ‘vassal state’ but the UK would become a rule taker. That’s not a good place to be if you’re a democrat,” he said.

At a point in time, EU membership becomes the obvious option

“The logical consequence then is to say, ‘If we are bound to keep at least part of the United Kingdom in the single market because of the Good Friday agreement, the choice is: Either we renounce the Good Friday Agreement, and then we can indeed leave the single market and customs union. Or we keep the UK inside the European Union, because democratically, that’s the only serious option.”

“It’s that kind of conundrum that is constantly denied by the majority of the political class in the UK but that is the reality.”

4. A lengthy transition keeps the door open for a return

Theresa May

Dan Kitwood / Getty

The EU has offered Britain a 21-month transition phase when it leaves the bloc in March next year to strike an agreement on its future trade relationship with the EU, and Britain has seen its early attempts to extend that time window rebuffed.

Lamberts said that offering Britain an extended transition period was important because it would avoid a “cliff-edge” no deal scenario and could give time for a future government to change its mind on Brexit.

“I would not make the duration of the transition period a problem,” he said. “Let’s look at a transition period. What is it? It is basically membership in all but name. What problem is that for the EU27? Frankly speaking, none.”

“In my view, it is not a negative for the European Union to accept that status for the United Kingdom because that status comes with obligations.

You apply and enforce EU law, you contribute to the EU budget, there’s no change in the freedom of circulation. Nothing changes, except that the Brits are not sitting at the table.

“Just imagine that a new British government – because it does not feel bound by whatever the previous government did – says: ‘OK, we believe the decision to leave that way was the wrong decision and we want to reconsider.’

“Now Brexit is done – the UK is it is no longer a member state – but it is still in the transition.

“I can’t imagine – and I’m serious here – that the European Commission, the European Parliament, or a majority of the member states would oppose it. That would be stupid.”

“You must make sure that this door remains open. It’s going to be a difficult process anyway but you don’t want to make a bad situation worse.”