The EU is more like a league system than a club,
Brexit more like relegation than resigning.
For a brief period in 2001, Leeds United was at the top of English football and flying high in Europe. Six years later, after a collapse which still sets a benchmark for failure in sport, they were playing in League One, football’s third tier. Now, after another thirteen years, they have returned to the Premier League.
As well as a reminder that triumph and disaster are both short-lived, Leeds’ experience can shed a light on the UK’s changing relationship with the EU.
Simply saying “we’re out” or telling Remainers “you lost, get over it”, ignores the EU’s structure which is more like a league system than a club; and just as Leeds’ free-fall ended one Saturday in August 2007, the UK’s current direction of travel, away from the EU, is by no means fixed.
From the Birkenhead to Liverpool
After two relegations, insolvency, and a pre-season points deduction, Leeds started its first season in League One in last place on minus fifteen points. Playing Tranmere Rovers at their Birkenhead ground in front of a crowd of eleven thousand, a return to the Premier League was a long way off, and further still after twenty minutes. Tranmere scored.
By half time, any Leeds fans at the match will have wondered how much further could their club fall.
But as well as triumph and disaster, football is about hope. The fans will have stayed for the second half in the belief that things would get better, which they did. Leeds’ future on that August afternoon was not a progression to ever lower leagues or a permanent stay in the third tier. Instead one-nil down, on minus fifteen points in League One was as bad as it got. Leeds scored twice to beat Tranmere and begin their climb back to football’s top tier. After three years in League One, and ten in The Championship, they finally won promotion back to the Premier League. Appropriately, their opening match for this season was eight miles from Tranmere’s ground at Liverpool.
The EU’s own league system
In the 1950s, when the original six countries founded the European Coal and Steel Community and later the European Economic Community, things were simple; there were members and there was the rest. Sixty years later, the organisation we now know as the EU has become far larger and more complex with over 100 countries connecting to it through treaties and trade agreements.
In the top tier are the Rule Makers. These are the EU’s 27 Member States which define its policies and operations. To be a Rule Maker is to be in the Premier League, all of the benefits of the Union are available. While some countries are more closely aligned, using the Euro as a common currency or allowing passport free travel in Schengen Area, all Members benefit from the Union’s collective support against outsiders.
Loyalty to Members, notably Ireland, has been central to the Brexit negotiations — not the same experience for the UK as negotiations with Ireland in previous times.
Countries which are not Member States but in one or both of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union (SM&CU) are in the second tier. These are the Rule Takers. Like clubs in English football’s second tier, The Championship, they reap many of the benefits of the Union but the rewards are never as good as for the Member States and they have little influence over the EU’s operation.
Finally the third tier contains counties which have agreed bespoke trade deals of various sorts with the EU. The benefit to the country depends on its ability to negotiate with the EU, the largest trading block in the world. It’s League One or lower.
All of this complexity was in place in 2013 when David Cameron proposed an “in out referendum”. His proposal gave the impression that the EU was a club from which the UK could simply resign. This was a catastrophic mistake. It set the terms for the 2016 referendum — Leave or Remain — and led to many voters having wholly unrealistic expectations as to what would happen in the event of a Leave vote.
The UK’s double relegation
Before the Brexit referendum, the UK was in the top tier, one of the then 28 Member States. It had not adopted the common currency or allowed passport free travel, except with Ireland, but it was unquestionably a Rule Maker. After it formally notified the EU of its desire to leave the Union in March 2017, the concept of the EU27 and a somewhat detached UK took hold. Although the UK remained a Member State until 31 January 2020, it would be fair to say that its role as a Rule Maker was diminished before then. Since February, the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement has formalised its status as a Rule Taker until the end of the year, no longer a Member State but still inside the SM&CU.
On 1 January 2021, the UK, except Northern Ireland, will join the third tier. Sadly, there will be no comprehensive Free Trade Agreement covering both goods and services, despite this being touted as the easiest trade deal ever to negotiate. But the UK will leave anyway.
Like Leeds, the UK is not just being relegated to League One, it is starting on negative points. And yes, it can get worse.
Nineteen days after the UK enters the third tier, a new US president will be sworn in. With his strong Irish connections, commitment to the Northern Ireland peace agreement and desire to reverse the damage done by Donald Trump, President Biden’s administration will make it even harder for a detached UK to benefit from Brexit. In comparison, one nil down at Tranmere Rovers looks quite good.
By mid-2021, UK citizens may feel like the Leeds fans at the Tranmere game. No longer a Member State, nor in the SM&CU, no substantial free trade agreement with the EU and other trade partners no longer admiring a buccaneering independent Britain. If they ever did. Many may ask, is this as bad as it gets? Although others may relish the freedom.
Which way is up?
One of the great attractions of sport is that the rules are known. Success and failure can be measured and quantified. Leeds fans knew that if their team ended a season in nineteenth place it would be relegated from the Premier League. It was also clear that The Championship was a lesser league, and League One even more so. No supporter would prefer to be in a lower division.
Leeds fans never chanted “Let’s go League One”.
In contrast, politics does not work in simple rankings and often there is no agreement on which way is “up”. For many, being at the heart of the EU is best and Brexit means the UK cutting itself off from its most important economic market and cultural home. Yet for others, isolation is freedom and Brexit a release from the bondage of the EU’s rules.
“Let’s go WTO” has echoed across Parliament Square.
A majority voted for Brexit in 2016 and many will support the UK’s decision to “go WTO” or something close in 2021. But although being distanced from the EU will allow the UK to be different, unless the bulk of the electorate is substantially better off by being outside the SM&CU, it is hard to see how this position will be sustained.
Voices proposing that the UK would benefit by improving trade links with the EU will not go away and, eventually, they will prevail as UK political debate returns to the norm summed up in James Carville’s maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”.
The next three years …
The best that Leeds fans could hope for in the 2007/8 season was to be promoted back to The Championship; the Premier League would have to wait. In contrast, a ghost of Cameron’s simplification survives in comments by Remainers — that the UK should re-join the EU; and by Leavers — that this will never happen. For some, little has been learned from the protracted Brexit process.
The UK is far too polarised to simply re-join the Union. But it could start heading in that direction by seeking closer trade ties and re-joining the SM&CU. Promotion to the Championship is what is needed.
Although the current Conservative government has too much political capital invested in Brexit for it to reverse course, irrespective of its consequences, the same is not true for the UK’s other political parties. Unless Brexit proves to be an extraordinary success in the next three years, the UK’s relationship with the EU will remain a central issue for the next general election, scheduled for 2 May 2024. Anything other than a Tory victory will lead to a new government with different views on engagement with the EU. There is no need for Labour or other parties to risk the ire of Leave supporters by proposing to undo Brexit. That can wait. It will be enough to propose that the UK would be better off with a more substantial trade deal with Europe and that this might be via membership of the Single Market and Customs Union — if acceptable terms can be agreed.
Just as Leeds spent three years in League One, the UK will spend from 2021 to 2024 outside the SM&CU. But this period in the third tier could end soon afterwards. And once back in the second tier, a natural question to ask is: why be a Rule Taker?
… and the ten after that
There is of course no connection between the ten years Leeds spent in The Championship and the time needed for the UK, once inside the SM&CU, to negotiate full membership of the EU. But a decade may be required.
Unencumbered by a written constitution, Parliament could agree to re-join the EU without a public vote, as it did in 1973. But it is far more likely that the process will be the same as the Brexit referendum. A political party will need to win power in a general election with a proposal to hold an EU referendum in its election manifesto. With the next general election due in 2029, it will be the early 2030s at least before a referendum is held and terms for re-joining negotiated — with possibly a confirmatory referendum after that for good measure.
Ten years on from the general election in 2024, is likely to see both another UK general election and the start of the next seven-year EU budget. It would be timely to have completed the process by then.
Of course, the Tories might win the 2024 election and the one after that. But unless Brexit delivers economic success, the issue of whether to move closer to the EU will not go away.
Other than being far richer, the Premier League which Leeds re-joined this season was little changed from when the club was relegated in 2004: the same number of teams; the same rules to the game; and the same access to European competitions for the top clubs. Similarly, Leeds United was much the same as when it left, playing at the same stadium, Elland Road, and in front of the same fans.
In contrast, over the coming decade the EU may change in ways that make re-joining impossible. But it would be a mistake to assume that EU would not want the UK to re-join. The UK chose to leave, it was not the Union’s desire for this to happen; and the Union will always benefit, financially and politically from having the UK, a budget contributor, as a Member State. Troublesome as it may be to bring the UK inside, it is unlikely that an application would be rejected or a deal not found, if the UK wanted to re-join.
In the same way that Leeds’ future was most precarious while it was in League One, the cohesion of the UK itself is at greatest risk while it is doubly relegated. The arrangements for Northern Ireland — to be in the EU’s Customs Union and some parts of its Single Market yet still part of the UK’s internal market — may prove to be unworkable. While the imposition of Brexit on Scotland, which strongly voted to remain in the EU in 2016, fuels the argument for Scottish independence. A return to the SM&CU would address these problems, entirely or partially.
It is the UK being outside the SM&CU, not the lack of full EU membership, which leads to talk of borders on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea; while the influence of Brexit on the independence debate in Scotland would be dampened if the UK were clearly heading back towards the heart of the EU.
For the 2024 general election, parties proposing that the UK develop closer links with the EU will be able to argue that doing so will strengthen the cohesion of the UK itself. Ironically, the Conservative and Unionist Party may find itself on the wrong side this argument if it continues to advocate remaining outside the SM&CU. It would also mean that Scotland’s fastest and smoothest route back into the EU would be by remaining part of the UK, a budget contributor with a major currency, rather than seeking to do so as an independent country, which would be a prospective recipient of EU budget with a weak or no currency of its own.
All too often there is a lack of hope in political debate. Things will not change, or if they do, they will get worse. In contrast there is always hope in sport. We hope that the second half will be better; that promotion will come this year. The week after they played Tranmere, 24,000 came to watch Leeds’ first home game in League One. The fans never doubted that their club would keep seeking promotion and one day be back in the Premier League.
Any prediction that the UK will remain permanently outside the EU, its Single Market and Customs Union, requires short-sightedness rather than foresight. There is no reason for things to stay the same if they are inadequate. Sovereignty is temporal as well as spatial. The UK is not shackled to its past — including the 2016 referendum result.
In 2021, the UK will finally be in the EU’s third tier. This will not be the end of the process; Brexit will not be “done”. It is just the start of the next chapter in the UK/EU saga, which may be long or short in duration. If there are tangible economic benefits, this may become the permanent state of UK/EU affairs. But if the benefits promised in the Brexit referendum do not materialise, the pressure to reverse the process of the last few years will grow — in which case, the UK may follow a path analogous to Leeds’ return to English football’s top tier.
Those who believe that this is in the UK’s best interests need to have the patience and persistence of a football fan and to have hope in their hearts.