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Was Brexit inevitable?

Jan 23,2021 - Last updated at Jan 23,2021

LONDON  —  On one level, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union was an unintended consequence of a too-clever political ploy by former prime minister David Cameron. In 2015, in order to undercut the appeal of Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party movement, and secure a Conservative majority in the upcoming general election, Cameron promised a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. He expected to win and keep Britain in the EU. He succeeded in his first aim, only to resign immediately when the “Leave” side won the UK’s 2016 referendum on its EU membership.

Brexit, on this view, was simply a historical accident, the result of one politician’s tactical miscalculation. But this is a superficial rendering of a complex story. When the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk”, he meant that the direction of history is evident only after the event. It was a colorful way of stating the law of unintended consequences. The consequences of Cameron’s political maneuvers were unintended, but his political passions were doing the work of Hegel’s Weltgeist, or world spirit, the unseen force driving history.

This argument suggests that Brexit was in some sense predetermined. To be sure, no one engaging in the debate at the time thought so. Both Leavers and Remainers believed the outcome was open, and fought hard to ensure the result they wanted.

But in retrospect, there was a whiff of inevitability about the UK’s separation, not from Europe, but from the EU as the institutional expression of it. To be fanciful, one could say that the Leavers instinctively sensed that dusk was approaching, whereas the Remainers did not.

After all, the UK joined the EU late and was an awkward member, and the weight of its past increasingly militated against the Union’s future. Looking back, the rupture began with the UK’s decision to opt out of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

EMU, which every EU member state was expected to join, was intended to be a stepping-stone to political union. And EU leaders saw the 2012-14 eurozone crisis, caused by the single currency’s lack of political counterparts, as the necessary spur, or goad, to further state-building.

Since that crisis, the EU has taken tentative steps toward fiscal union, banking union, and a lender-of-last-resort function for the European Central Bank (ECB), and, though still mostly on paper, to strengthen the supervisory and surveillance powers of the European Commission, European Parliament, and ECB. The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an ambitious fiscal rescue plan. So, the Leavers were right to see a federalist logic embedded in the EU’s economic structure.

But is federalism really Europe’s destiny? Many federalists argue that if the EU’s 27 members do not advance all the way to political union, Europe will retreat all the way to a congeries of nation-states.

Yet, such a binary choice is surely false. There are several possible versions of Europe. One alternative is what former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble called a Europe of “variable geometry”. A core group of member states headed by Germany would federalise sufficiently to make the single-currency system work, while a Mediterranean group would choose more flexible arrangements, such as adjustable exchange rates.

This path is feasible and logical. It has not been followed because, rather unattractively, it harks back, possibly unconsciously, to the old idea that Europe is inherently divided into productive and unproductive parts and races. But it remains a possibility.

A more seductive vision is that of a modernised medievalism. The political scientist Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent approvingly describes today’s European system as consisting of “hybrid institutions, overlapping jurisdictions, multiple membership, polycentric authority, and multilevel governance”. This Europe is grounded not in legal contracts, but in the reality of social relationships.

Loyalty flows from proximity, not passports, and “mutualisation” is the motive and method for undertaking common tasks. This Europe takes seriously ideas such as subsidiarity and the tragedy of the commons. Its vision is that of a civil society able to undertake all the necessary tasks of economic management without the central controls federalists deem essential.

Immediately after World War II, the idea of a decentralised Europe offered an attractive middle way between the destructive poles of a Hitlerian empire and warring nation-states. It had a particular, and obvious, appeal in Germany itself, where the Federal Republic was established on the basis of a weak federalism. John Maynard Keynes, too, was attracted by the idea of combining “small political and cultural units combined into larger, and more or less closely knit, economic units”.

Had Europe evolved along these lines, the UK might have been less estranged from the EU, because the Union itself would have been a different animal. But, in Pabst’s telling, the European idea succumbed to the instrumental “neo-functionalism” of state-builders like Jean Monnet and the “ordo-liberalism” of the Hayekians, who wanted a market order based on rules rather than norms.

It is a moot point whether the vision of a modernised feudalism has any part to play in the future. For one thing, it lacks a sharp analytical edge, which is very important to win academic advocacy of an idea. Social scientists can think in terms of state, market and society, and divide their work into political science, economics and sociology, but a scheme of social thought that dulls academic boundaries leaves them floundering outside their disciplines like beached whales.

Moreover, although feudal Europe was extremely vibrant religiously and culturally, it was economically static. The city-states of the Renaissance, forerunners of modernity, produced wonders of thought and art, but little technological progress, productivity growth, or increases in income per capita. It fell to the newly unified nation-states of northwest Europe to achieve economic takeoff.

The primary requirement of today’s democracies is to devise a successful combination of localism and the centralised control needed for sustained economic growth and tolerable equality of conditions. Perhaps there is a way Europe can do it. What Brexit shows is that we have not yet found it.


Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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