The Meaning of Brexit (a collection)

As we look ahead to the culmination of Britain’s efforts to leave the European Union, it is also worth looking back on the process that brought us to this moment.  This collection offers a series of short essays that were written as events unfolded alongside a clutch of articles that try to put Britain’s departure from the European Union in a wider theoretical and historical context.

The commentary started in 2015 with a comparison between Brexit as a process and Grexit as an event.  The idea was to anticipate just how complicated it might be for Great Britain to leave the European Union should the British people choose to do so.  As the referendum campaign started, the commentary focused first on the challenges associated with trying to address the grievances highlighted by the Leave campaign while at the same time remaining faithful to the internal market.  The next two comments came out before and after the vote.  The first reflected on the implications of the referendum for Britain before the fact and the second focused on the implications for Europe once the British chose to depart.  The final comment was a reflection on the lessons we might learn from the British government’s efforts to negotiate and agree upon a withdrawal agreement.  As a collection, these comments show how insights from political science can be used to shed light on and add depth to contemporaneous analysis of current events.

The more contextual pieces take a different tack and found publication in different venues.  A jointly-authored article with Matthias Matthijs in Government & Opposition asks how well-designed political institutions can drift toward a low level of performance.  The answer, we argue, is that the people who run those institutions no longer want them to deliver public goods; instead, those people hope to use institutional failure as a springboard for even greater political success.  Brexit is just one illustration among many.  This is not a terribly surprising finding.  The original insight comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  But it is worrying for any process of integration.

A separate essay published in the Journal of European Public Policy asks what a theory of disintegration might look like.  The British example is one illustration, but it is far from isolated.  Indeed, what we are seeing in Britain may be part of a wider process.  The evidence can be found in a piece with Anand Menon in International Affairs that looks at the hundred years since the Treaty of Versailles.  What we argue is that the immediate post-World War II period ushered in a pattern of cooperation under the rule of law that was hard to sustain once the Cold War ended.  Democracies chafed at perceived constraints and democratic politicians deflected blame onto multilateral organizations.  Now we are reaping the consequences.

A final essay published in Current History ties the themes together by looking at democratic transformation and the growing revolt against non-majoritarian institutions.  This argument was suggested originally by Peter Mair in an essay in Government & Opposition that he published in 2007 and that was reproduced posthumously in his 2013 book Ruling the Void.  What I try to do is tie various threads together that connect increasing market volatility and the failure of macroeconomic demand stabilization with the rise of populism and the growing disenchantment with European integration.  Again, Brexit is a symptom of a wider problem.  The challenge is not only to diagnose the underlying causal mechanism but also to find some way to address it.  The current situation in the United Kingdom shows just how difficult and how important that task is.

The bibliographic details for these essays are as follows:


Running Commentary on Brexit

Leaving Europe: British Process, Greek Event.’ Survival 57:3 (June/July 2015) pp. 79-85.

Confronting Europe’s Single Market.’ Survival 58:1 (February/March 2016) pp. 59-67.

Brexit’s Lessons for European Democracy.’ Survival 58:3 (June/July 2016) pp. 41-49.

The Meaning of Britain’s Departure.’ Survival 58:4 (August/September 2016) pp. 211-224.

Four Things We Should Learn from Brexit.’ Survival 60:6 (December 2018/January 2019) pp. 35-44.


Putting Brexit into a Wider Context

Democracy without Solidarity – Political Dysfunction in Hard Times.’ Government and Opposition 52:2 (2017) pp. 185-210. With Matthias Matthijs.

Toward a Theory of Disintegration.’ Journal of European Public Policy 25:3 (January 2018) pp. 440-451.

Europe: Between Dream and Reality?’ International Affairs 95:1 (January 2019) pp. 161-180. With Anand Menon.

Why European Democracies are Struggling.’ Current History 118 (March 2019) pp. 83-89.


The running commentary was published in Survival.  Many of the pieces started as entries on the Survival Editor’s Blog and then graduated into the print pages of the journal.  Survival editor Dana Allin played a critical role in that process.  So have the managing editors of the journal, Matthew Harries and Jonathan Stevenson.