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The Brexit election and the making of a European Britain

Brexit has consumed, humiliated and frustrated Britain and its political leaders. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty unleashed it is easy to overlook some of the longer-term trends and changes it represents, not least how European the UK is and how Brexit is not a one-way movement of the UK away from the rest of Europe but in many ways has actually moved Britain closer to European norms. 

The British might have long struggled to recognise their European identity, and many still reject it. However, Brexit has confronted the British with some of the realities of that identity. That reality is that the past forty years has seen the UK’s politics, constitution, economy, society and place in the world grow more European. This is a reality many UK governments have accepted and quietly worked with in searching to build and shape the UK’s relations with the rest of the EU. 

It’s also a reality that has been on display in a General Election defined by European-style multi-party politics; commitments to welfare spending that would put the UK closer to European norms than US ones; and a growing realisation – if not acceptance – of Britain’s economic and security interdependences with the rest of Europe. 

Many of the formal EU-centred links might now be severed or altered by a UK withdrawal. However, future negotiations about the UK-EU relationship mean those links could once again be formalized or reconstituted in new ways. Calls for this will be helped by Britain’s new-found pro-European voices who have been created, or in some cases brought out of the shadows, by the UK’s vote to leave. 

The British might have long struggled to recognise their European identity, and many still reject it. However, Brexit has confronted the British with some of the realities of that identity. 

Close alignment between Britain and the EU, however, should not be taken for granted in a post-Brexit environment. As recent debates about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU have highlighted, on both the Right and Left some continue to hope that withdrawal will allow the UK to diverge significantly from European standards. 

Such efforts, however, will run into the problem of the Europeanised state of Britain and the ever-present strategic need on the part of the UK’s government, businesses and civil society to engage closely with the continent to which the country is forever bound. The success of the EU and the UK’s need to shape it will therefore remain two of Britain’s leading concerns. 

Does this mean the departure of a Europeanised Britain will inevitably lead to it rejoining? This is unlikely because the UK’s terms of membership would not be the same as now. Opt-outs from the Euro, Schengen, some areas of Justice and Home Affairs matters, and the British rebate are unlikely to be offered. The feelings of regret this creates could boost pro-European sentiments. But accepting such conditions will make for a very difficult sell in any referendum on rejoining. 

As the Norway and Switzerland examples also show, support can also decline if the EU’s approach to future negotiations and relations appears abrasive, bullying or overbearing. It is important not to overlook how corrosive this could be on UK public support for links with the EU. 

This should not be taken to mean that the UK and EU cannot negotiate a new relationship where the UK can continue to come to terms with its overlapping European and global identities. Negotiations have so far focused on the UK’s withdrawal. The future relationship remains an undiscovered country. 

Nor does this mean the UK has to withdraw to become more European or recognise how European it is. Our forthcoming research into whether Brexit has made Britain more European might be taken to mean a non-EU Europeanised UK will pose no problems and that Brexit should not be resisted or regretted.

However, in an emerging multipolar world Brexit carries significant economic, political, constitutional, security, defence, social and diplomatic risks for the UK. It will also cause significant ongoing problems for the EU to have to manage relations with a Europeanised but estranged UK struggling to come to terms with the fallout of Brexit. Far easier to face this with the UK inside the EU.