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​​In the cut and thrust of British politics, adaptation is not just a strategy; it is a necessity. As the Conservative Party continues to languish in the polls, averaging a twenty-point deficit to the Labour Party, there has never been a more compelling case for embracing a fresh approach on Brexit and forging a closer alliance with Europe. Only this way can the Party win back the hearts and minds of one of the country’s demographic powerhouses – the young generation.

Brexit created a seismic shock which shook the post-war consensus inaugurated by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Many of my generation had assumed that a progressive reduction of custom duties accompanied by a single market for goods, services and labour would lead to ever greater harmonisation between Britain and Europe. As such, many younger voters, who predominantly supported remaining in the European Union, feel disconnected from a Conservative Government that championed a more radical divergence from Europe and have miserably failed to maximise any of the so-called Brexit opportunities. A failure to address this divergence has undoubtedly contributed to the Conservative Party’s struggles among the youth and can no longer be ignored.

A large poll of over 10,000 respondents carried out by Focaldata in December 2023 shows that 38% of voters say that the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should seek a closer relationship with the European Union, compared to only 24% who say a Conservative Government should keep the relationship the same and only 13% saying Sunak should seek a more distant relationship. This disparity is even greater amongst younger demographics. Polling involving more than 1,000 18-to-24-year-olds by Best for Britain in May 2023 showed that 58% wanted a closer relationship with the EU – almost twice as many as those who wanted things to stay as they were or become more distant. Commenting on the polling, Tom Brufatto, the Director of Policy and Research at Best for Britain, said that, “young people are more likely to see Brexit as having caused more problems than it has fixed.”

As we move beyond the fourth anniversary of Brexit, demands for a rapprochement will only grow louder and a Conservative Government will receive little political benefit in antagonistic relations with the EU.

A whole generation of young people who were not able to vote in the 2016 referendum want a better relationship with the EU and all the economic opportunities that a closer relationship would bring.

In Rishi Sunak, the Conservative Party finally has a moderate Conservative leader who can position the Conservatives as a unifying force and appeal to younger voters. By seeking a pragmatic and collaborative approach with the EU, Sunak can appeal to both those who supported Brexit and a younger generation who favoured remaining or were too young to vote at all.

Already, Sunak has made some headway in bridging this gap and, despite his Brexiteer credentials, his arrival in 10 Downing Street has undoubtedly lifted EU hopes of a long-awaited improvement in relations with the UK. On January 1st 2024, the UK officially returned to the flagship Horizon Europe science research programme with British scientists once again able to apply for grants from the £85 billion programme. The way to rejoining Horizon was already cleared in February 2023, when the Windsor framework was agreed – an issue that had bedevilled the UK’s relationship with the EU ever since Boris Johnson’s Government launched a bid to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol in 2021.

After these modest gains, Sunak now stands at a crossroads with an opportunity to redefine the nation’s future relationship with Europe and put Britain firmly on the path towards a Swiss-style relationship with the EU. Such a move would not only make electoral and economic sense, but also contribute to a more prosperous and resilient post-Brexit Britain that a younger generation can be proud of and excited by.

A renewed focus on forging closer ties with the EU would open doors for British businesses, maximising market access – particularly in high-growth sectors, such as financial services, life sciences and green industries. Sunak’s commitment to supporting the private sector aligns with the potential benefits of a more seamless trading relationship with our European neighbours.

At the moment, the UK is experiencing the worst of all worlds, with restricted access to the EU’s markets but limited deregulation. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NISR) estimates that, as a result, the negative impacts of Brexit on the UK’s real GDP will gradually escalate, reaching between five and six percentage points or about £2,300 per capita by 2035.

A Swiss-style relationship would require regulatory alignment with the EU: a bitter pill for some hardline Brexiteers to swallow, but a crucial factor for industries ranging from tech to finance. For young professionals working in these sectors, this alignment would provide a stable and predictable regulatory environment, fostering innovation and supporting the growth of cutting-edge industries.

The Swiss model also allows for freedom of movement, enabling young people to travel, work and study across European nations. This freedom not only enriches personal experience but also contributes to a more globally-aware generation. For students, the Erasmus program was a symbol of educational freedom and cultural exchange. The decision to withdraw from this program is seen as a betrayal of the rich, immersive learning experience that is integral to personal development and a broader understanding of the world.

This Government’s commitment to future generations can be further realised through a strategic approach to the UK’s relationship with the EU. By fostering economic stability and growth, Sunak can contribute to a legacy of financial security for the next generation, addressing the concerns and aspirations of young voters.

Conservatism, at its core, values economic stability and growth. A closer relationship with Europe is not a surrender of our sovereignty but a pragmatic move to bolster our economic standing. By fostering stronger economic ties, we open avenues for job creation, business expansion and enhanced opportunities for the young professionals navigating the complexities of the modern job market.

In essence, this is not a call for a complete about-face, but a strategic evolution that aligns conservatism with the aspirations of the future leaders of our nation; a call to move beyond the shallow and sterile Brexit debate to explore what lies beyond EU membership. The Conservative Party has an opportunity to lead the way, bridge generational divides and create a vision of the future that resonates with the energy, innovation and optimism of younger voters.

A whole generation woke up on June 24, 2016, with a painful hangover and have yet to fully recover. Brexit represented a profound betrayal of the aspirations and values they held dear: a commitment to the principles of free trade and to the rights of people to move freely between countries. It is now time for the Conservative Party to talk about Brexit and a closer realignment with Europe – not just as a political strategy but as a commitment to a brighter, more collaborative future for Britain.

Isabella Wallersteiner is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.