On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The political and economic upheaval set forth by the shocking vote has led influential commentators to portray Brexit as the most dramatic political event in Europe since the end of WW2. They are arguably right. As the withdrawal process unfolds, tensions between London and Brussels over the terms of their future relationship dominate the agenda.
While extensive international media coverage has been dedicated to the ongoing political bargaining, much less attention has been devoted towards addressing the real roots of Brexit. The absence of such analysis risks exacerbating divisions and misunderstandings on both sides of the Channel. To be sure, in the months following the referendum, many tried to address this complex issue.
Some highlighted the role played by the so-called “left behind”. For these analysts, Brexit is mainly the result of a widespread perception among British voters of decades of rising inequality, economic stagnation and increased insecurity. Others have emphasised the role played by unscrupulous politicians who astutely played with voters’ emotions, with arguments about sovereignty and control of migration, ultimately winning the day. Arguably, all these arguments contain some truth. Nevertheless, they neglect the complexity of the UK’s idiosyncratic approach vis-à-vis the project of European integration.
Behind the Curtain
Thus, we are left asking ourselves the same question, namely, what were the real causes of Brexit? This article seeks to answer this question by challenging the assumption that Brexit was first and foremost a vote against the failing neoliberal agenda and the cosmopolitan metropolitan elites who promoted it. Rather, it contends that, first and foremost, the decision to leave the EU must be understood within the framework of Great Britain’s traditional scepticism towards the European federalist vision and specifically, its historical conception of the Balance of Power in Europe.
While discussing the outcome of the Brexit referendum, many commentators often fail to consider Great Britain’s traditional scepticism towards the European federalist vision and in general, its historical concept of Balance of Power. Euroscepticism in the UK is not a by-product of Boris Jonson’s successful slogan bus “We send the EU £350m a week: let’s fund our NHS instead”. Nor is it just the result of a campaign dominated by scaremongering and the misuse of statistics.
Instead, the UK’s brand of Euroscepticism reflects Britain’s traditional opposition to the belief that the best way to reconcile and mediate Europe’s different economic, political, cultural and ethnic groupings is to establish a supranational government. This supranational vision was the normative doctrine that drove the ambition of Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Altiero Spinelli in building the foundations of a federal Europe.
Britain, on the other hand, has historically been reluctant of entering into permanent European commitments. In the seventeenth century, England pioneered the concept of the “balance of power”. From the British perspective, the supreme goal of international politics was to maintain the equilibrium between the most powerful actors, while ensuring no great power could dominate others. As such, it was England’s style to abandon its minimal involvement in European affairs only when the balance of power was under attack.
For instance, Britain supported France against the threat of “universal dominion” from the Habsburgs in the 17th century and opposed French hegemony under Napoleon later. Equally, it fought Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the 20th century. If one subscribes to the view that it was the very idea of never again taking up arms against each other that pushed the EU’s founding fathers to launch their project, then it is reasonable to presume that London never felt this need in the same way.
Accordingly, the UK never really shared the great ambitions of the EU Treaties, especially that of an “ever closer union” with other members. In fact, since joining the European Communities in 1973, the UK has remained a suspicious member of the European project and repeatedly resisted important steps towards further European integration.
A Sceptical Member State
When its European partners enthusiastically launched a common currency in 1992, the UK chose to be exempt from joining the euro; when the European Communities incorporated the Schengen free border system in 1997 and abolished internal controls, Britain opted out; when the EU enacted documents in the domain of social rights in 2000 (the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union), Britain pulled out from the new common rules. Finally, during the euro crisis, the UK opposed forms of financial assistance to Eurozone countries in fiscal stress and decided not to sign the Fiscal Compact. These decisions taken by Britain raise an important question, especially in the aftermath of Brexit: Why did Britain join the European Communities in the first place?
The UK application to the European Communities in 1961 was precipitated by the humiliating experience of the Suez crisis, which destroyed England’s status as a world power, and a decline in the UK’s economy compared to its European partners. After the loss of the empire, Britain, for the first time in its history, saw a united Europe as an opportunity for economic prosperity and a way to enhance its international status on the world stage.
More importantly, it can be argued that the UK saw the EU as an institutionalised “balance of power” designed to contain any potential hegemonic aspirations and capable of ensuring that stability which Britain couldn’t pursue on its own anymore. However, in the run-up to the Brexit vote, many things have changed.
A Union that Has Lost Its Way
Among these, the continent’s strongest economic power has come to dictate the terms under which struggling Eurozone nations can apply for further credit, thus eroding the sovereignty of these countries’ parliaments. As stated by Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for International Studies, “After the euro crisis, many states and not only Britain have felt that the EU’s balance of power set-up is no longer in equilibrium”.
Furthermore, the poor mismanagement of the Eurozone by unelected institutions such as the ECB, European Commission and IMF has reinforced a long-standing view of the EU as a technocratic and unthinking bureaucracy. The austerity policies adopted by the Spanish government in 2012 under the pressure of the Troika, for instance, were so harsh that the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights denounced them as violating basic human rights. Surely, the crisis and the extreme measures meted out by the EU’s ruling bodies played a decisive part in the latest decision of British voters.
There were many good reasons for voting to leave the EU, although the Brexit campaign was not always fought on them. Some of these have to do with Britain’s traditional sensitivity for the balance of power in Europe and with her traditional scepticism towards the European federalist vision. Yet commentators on both sides of the Channel have failed to explain Brexit under this frame.
More worryingly, the Brexit vote has led EU leaders to affirm the necessity to punish Britain for leaving. This shows that the EU has entirely lost its way. As suggested by American economist Joseph Stiglitz, “The citizens should want to be in the EU because of the prosperity membership brings, not because they fear the wrath that will be brought down upon them by their friends and neighbours if they leave”.
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