You can imagine how the idea might have started. A gaggle of enthusiastic eurofederalists ring a table in one of Brussels’s many Michelin Star restaurants, fishing for their expenses forms before the bill arrives. What would really tick off these rebellious British voters?
We could predict that any nation leaving the EU will cease to exist – no, Juncker’s already got that line. Or we could dismiss the Leave vote as an expression of populism – nope, Cameron’s bagged that one.
I know, pipes up Charles Goerens MEP, the internationally famous former Luxembourg Minister for Co-operation, Humanitarian Action and Defence. Why not offer their citizens the opportunity to opt-in to EU citizenship? All the Remain voters could show that they want to stay in the EU, all the Leave voters whom we know are regretting their error could do so, too, and it would underline the huge value of the European project. Imagine the look on their ignorant, populist faces when all their people choose to remain even as their Government insists on leaving.
Chortling, and another bottle of Merlot, ensues. But the next day, Goerens tables the idea as a policy to be included in the next EU treaty. It gathers adherents in the European Parliament and, eventually, Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, decides to lift it out of the treaty change queue and add it to his negotiating platform.
It’s safe to say that I won’t be taking up the opportunity of calling myself an EU citizen. I’ve no desire whatsoever for the numerous overpaid stuffed shirts in Brussels to claim any right to represent me or my interests, thanks all the same. Others might well feel differently; particularly if, as proposed by Goerens and Verhofstadt, opting in to EU citizenship would grant British citizens a continued right to free movement across the EU. It’s easy to see some people signing up for ideological reasons – the Matthew Parrises and Anna Soubrys of the world – and others signing up for practical reasons.
But that would be entirely fine by me. Indeed, all Leavers should welcome the proposal. Yes, it might occasionally be tiresome if Juncker et al were to wave lists around and claim that x number of Brits are voting with their feet. But it wouldn’t matter in any real sense, as we’d be out of the EU, governing ourselves and getting on with making our country an even greater success. The Parrises and Soubrys can knock themselves out with EU form-filling and flag-waving if they wish, as long as they don’t try to force the rest of us to remain inside their failed project.
Indeed, it strikes me that this proposal could end up aiding the domestic politics of the Brexit process. A good chunk of the Continuity Remain argument consists of bemoaning the ‘rights’ they will lose when we Leave. Tim Farron’s strategy in particular is to try to build this up into a political movement which will pressure the Government to either cancel, delay or water down Brexit. If, however, anyone who wants to would retain the chance to sign up to those EU ‘rights’ after Brexit, that case would be fundamentally weakened. Why fight desperately to stay in – why join the Liberal Democrats – if you personally can choose to take up various of the perks of membership after leaving anyway? The rug would be pulled from under the opposition’s feet.
The key questions, of course, are what would be required in return for such a deal. It would be out of the question for the British Exchequer, funded by all of us, to pay for a minority to retain EU citizenship. It would be far more appropriate for those who want it to pay for it themselves – something that presumably wouldn’t be a problem given the routine insistence that the EU is great value for money. Also, would this be on offer to British expats currently living in the rest of the EU, effectively offering a straightforward visa regime? If so, it could help to settle a vexed issue early on.