FOCUS: The Groundhog Opens an Eye – Brexit, 18 months and counting

FOCUS: The Groundhog Opens an Eye – Brexit, 18 months and counting

William Outhwaite

This special issue of Discover Society, curated by William Outhwaite, welcomes the new year of Brexit negotiations with views on the process from contributors from outside the United Kingdom.

Unlike the sequence described by Marx in the 18th Brumaire, in which tragedy is succeeded by farce, Brexit began as farce and has continued like that, though it still looks as likely as not to end in tragedy.

Since I began to write, on the morning after the referendum, a piece for Discover Society and a postscript to my book on Contemporary Europe, we have experienced a kind of groundhog year-and-a-half, in which nothing has been settled except the immediate collapse of the pound, which probably has a long way further to fall, and the recent or impending loss of large numbers of key workers and fellow EU citizens and important parts of financial and administrative infrastructure. (On a single day in November the UK lost two important EU agencies and its seat on the International Court of Human Rights, with partners in the UN commenting that they did not understand what had happened to the UK.) The agreement for the talks to progress concerns two issues which could have been resolved in early April and one, Ireland, where no resolution can be expected, in a situation where there is no rational basis for trust in the British government.

The proportions of those in the UK in favour of leaving or remaining are however barely changed, though with a narrow majority now for remaining. Only a quarter still believe that Britain’s economy would be better off, and well under a half that immigration would be lower. The greatest danger still seems to be that the UK will drift towards a result which has become increasingly unpopular as well as demonstrably unviable, rather like a diner who has made a bad choice from the menu but feels obliged to stick with it and pretend it’s not too bad. Although half of respondents in a recent poll wanted a second referendum, as against a third who did not, it is not clear whether this majority would vote against Brexit or merely against a proposed ‘deal’, preferring secession without any agreement. John Curtice concluded that former Leave voters ‘blame the actors in the Brexit process not the act of leaving itself.’

A former president of the Swiss National Bank wrote recently that living in London has become like Alice in Wonderland: ‘an upside-down world in which politicians describe things which don’t exist and make meaningless assertions’. A British commentator in the US has written of ‘Britain’s descent into chaos’ and a former Icelandic minister of the ‘Brexit-flop’ and ‘British politics out of control’. The Danish Finance Minister commented over the summer that ‘There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.’ The UK Parliament, far from ‘taking control’, has become an impotent laughing-stock. As well as Alice, it may be worth recalling a short story called ‘The Journey to Tilsit’, later filmed as ‘Sunrise’, in which a wife, taken on a boat trip by her unfaithful husband and knowing that he intends to drown her, keeps wondering at every stage whether or not ‘it will happen’. (Russia’s recently publicised contribution to the referendum result came of course not from Tilsit, now the Russian city of Sovetsk, but from further up the coast in St Petersburg.)

The UK no longer has a properly functioning government to serve as an ‘interlocuteur valable’ (the colonialists’ dismissive term seems appropriate in relation to the best the UK government can currently manage) for increasingly exasperated EU negotiators and for heads of state and government suffering pointless visits by British ministers who apparently believed, against all the evidence, that they could circumvent the Commission.(1) The Government’s papers produced over the summer and again in the autumn, like May’s Florence speech, did not impress.

The Irish Prime Minister commented, with British under-statement, that “It is quite a difficult negotiation when people who want to leave the European Union in Britain don’t really seem to agree among themselves what that actually means.” His predecessor said that he was sorry for May because she was out of her depth. The final tragicomic paradox appeared after the 2017 election when a government which had displayed complete indifference to the fate of Northern Ireland ended up cutting a (probably illegal and unquestionably corrupt) deal with the leading party there in order to survive. Although it is unlikely that Trump serves Russia, he has certainly served the British Conservatives well as a distraction from their own débâcles, including the sub-fascist attacks on anyone from the Governor of the Bank of England to academics teaching about Brexit.

Meanwhile the UK civil service, as Lord Adonis noted, is hopelessly overloaded with Brexit preparations. There are also ongoing legal challenges both to the validity of the Article 50 notification and to the removal of EU citizenship rights in Britain and the rest of the EU.

Ever since the UK’s previous European referendum in 1975, the continual debates, unparalleled in any other member state, about whether membership was a ‘good thing’ never raised the more important question of whether UK membership was a good thing for Europe, and this pattern has continued in the UK over the past year and a half. Elsewhere in Europe, the future of Britain is of secondary importance, compared to that of the EU, its member states and EU citizens resident in the UK, their lives suddenly threatened by the unpredictable behaviour of a rogue state.

This issue of DS presents some reactions from social scientists mostly based elsewhere in Europe and their evaluation of public opinion in what tends to be described, in the EU euphemism, as ‘the country I know best’. Responses might be expected to range from the sort of shock produced by an unexpected suicide to a sense of ‘good riddance; at last we’ll be able to do something serious’.

One immediate fear (or, for Brexit supporters, hope) rapidly receded: that the referendum result would have a domino effect elsewhere across the EU. Europeans did not quite respond with W.H. Auden’s line, written at an even more threatening time, September 1st, 1939, that ‘We must love one another or die’, but there was a significant rise in support for the EU. Perhaps a more appropriate line would be Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Always keep ahold of nurse For fear of finding something worse.’

Although Trump’s election was another shock, other threats from the extreme right did not materialise over the following year. Yet although respondents to a Pew survey in the Spring of 2017 overwhelmingly rejected leaving, even in Greece, a majority in seven of the countries surveyed, including 50% in Germany, where national referendums are almost entirely excluded for historical reasons, and a substantial minority in the other two, supported holding a membership referendum. In the same survey, only Greece recorded an unfavourable opinion (2:1) of the EU, and with even the UK 54% favourable against 40% unfavourable. An overwhelming majority of respondents across the ten countries thought Brexit would be bad for the EU, with only France and Italy recording the opposite view (36% and 26% respectively). All the countries surveyed except Greece thought it would be bad for the UK, though the majority was narrow in the UK itself: 48% to 44%.

A YouGov survey in August covered a slightly smaller range of countries but included Norway as well as the other principal Nordic countries. French respondents joined the British in opting narrowly for the UK to leave (38:32 as against 47:43 in the UK). France also had the highest number of don’t knows (30%), though the figures in the other countries were in the 20s, except in the UK (10%). In Norway, which also had a high don’t know response (29%), only a narrow majority (37:34) favoured the UK remaining. Of those who wanted the UK to leave, French respondents narrowly preferred this to happen ‘immediately’, rather than after the negotiations were completed (48:47).  The survey also asked for ‘up to three’ responses in the event that the UK decided to ‘stay after all’. The British were again evenly divided between angry/disappointed and relieved/pleased, while the French now had a narrow majority for the latter, as did all the others.

The French response raises the question how much of it reflected impatience with British obstructionism and special pleading, and this theme was explicitly addressed in an earlier German survey in July 2016. Respondents overall were against Brexit, with the only significant difference (apart from party affiliation) one of gender (67% women as against 58% men). The Allensbach survey offered a choice between two stimulus opinions:

I think it’s good that Great Britain leaves the EU. The British have always demanded special arrangements and the EU had to accommodate to them. It is therefore better for the EU if Great Britain is no longer a member.

I would have preferred it if Great Britain had decided to remain a member of the EU: it greatly weakens the EU politically and economically for such an important member state as Great Britain to leave the EU.

The overall result was 26% for the first to 58% for the second, with 16% don’t know/no response. Despite the Brexit setback, trust in the EU, while remaining negative, was over a third in July 2016 as against a quarter in December 2015.

The survey persisted with further stimuli, with the following positive responses (in percentages):


The EU would have been economically stronger with Great Britain 63
The EU would have had more influence in the world with Great Britain 54
Great Britain would again in the future have always demanded special treatment and thereby caused trouble 45
With Great Britain the EU would have a better relationship with the USA 29
With Great Britain the EU would have more to set against Russia 27
The departure of Great Britain is the beginning of the end of the EU 22
For the future of the EU it doesn’t make much difference whether Great Britain is a member or not 22
The departure of Great Britain is an opportunity for Europe, because without Great Britain it will be easier to take decisions on a European level. 22
Without Great Britain Europe will be better able to grow together 12

Catherine De Vries (2017) has provided some further survey evidence and an interesting focus on the relation between support for the EU and beliefs about the likely fate of one’s own state outside the EU – a possibility made suddenly more thinkable by the UK referendum. Interestingly, the European Commission’s normally upbeat Eurobarometer for a long time asked a question about how respondents would feel if the EU were ‘scrapped’ (the other language versions are a little less stark, referring for example to ‘disparition’ and ‘Scheitern’, normally translated as failure or breakdown). De Vries found, not surprisingly, that there was indeed a close relation, that a stimulus referring to high levels of corruption in one’s own country increased support for the EU, and the Brexit referendum increased the propensity to support remaining in the EU ‘if a referendum would be held today’. Another recent publication examines the general shape of attitudes to the EU across Europe.

Other EU member states have a particular concern if, like Poland, Ireland, Romania and Portugal, they have substantial numbers of their citizens resident in the UK.

Although Poland has much the largest number of citizens in the UK, it allows dual citizenship whereas Lithuania, which also has a substantial number, does not. The ridiculously high cost in time and money of acquiring not just UK citizenship (£1282; in notoriously expensive Switzerland it costs CHF 100) but even the ‘right to remain’ (£1163) make these anyway unattractive options. The scandalous incompetence of the Home Office in dealing with inquiries from other EU citizens made nonsense of the UK’s claims that domestic law and courts, rather than the ECJ, would be adequate to protect their rights after Brexit. For third country UK residents, used to being treated like shit by the authorities, all this is of course old hat.

Poland under its current regime, like Denmark, has lost an ally with the prospective departure of the UK already taken as a fait accompli. The British Conservatives sit in the European Parliament along with Poland’s ruling PiS as the largest national group in the European Conservatives and Reformists, which will be left with only the PiS and a rag-bag of other members. The implications for Denmark are more serious, since its long-standing policy has been, like the UK’s, to resist integration and seek special treatment (Adler-Nissen 2014).

There has not been much discussion in the UK of the legitimacy of secession and the costs it imposes on the entity left behind, though this topic has long been very prominent in Spain in relation to Catalonia. (2) The two situations are of course radically different since, in addition to the obvious differences between the EU and one of its member states, the Spanish constitution rather oddly proscribes secession, while the EU belatedly accommodated the possibility in the Lisbon Treaty with the now famous Article 50. The point however remains that secession does impose costs, in addition to those of the divorce agreement. In the UK case, although its opt-out of Schengen area membership (3), dragging Ireland into the same peripheral state, means that border formalities are still in place, Brexit threatens the EU’s external border (the UK is already seen as a major source of smuggled goods, and mad cow disease is not forgotten). It would also impose other economic costs of disruption to, and decline of, trade. A little noticed Financial Times article last May listed the number of trade agreements which would be lost on exit and have to be laboriously reconstructed, if this is anyway possible.

The UK has wasted months haggling inconsequentially over its exit bill, although whether it is a bit above or below €50 billion is a trivial matter compared to the cost of isolation from the Single Market and, even without this, the inevitable marginalisation of the UK, even with a Canadian-style free trade agreement after two or more years (more likely ten), which is all that is available if the UK sticks to its obsession with free movement and the role of the European Court. (4)  The government has still not made public the (apparently pathetically poor) studies produced long ago of the likely costs of Brexit (for an independent equivalent, see here),nor the even older papers, presented to the Cabinet at the time of the Coalition, refuting the notion that migration had significantly lowered wage rates or deprived native workers of jobs. It is only at the insistence of the Union that papers from the Brexit negotiations were made public; the British side had hoped to operate in secrecy. The Brexit government (this is its only raison d’être), which trumpeted the sovereignty of the British Parliament and British law, has treated both with contempt. It would be foolish for the Union to trust a country which used to be an awkward but on the whole reliable partner, but has now lapsed into Trumpish irresponsibility.

It remains to be seen whether Brexit reinforces the renationalising, xenophobic and anti-democratic trend in world politics or whether this, like radical Islamism, will eventually give way to modernising forces. The UK is perhaps fortunate that here the strength of this social conservatism is mostly in older generations – as Ian McEwan noted.

More worrying is its appeal to more youthful cohorts.

As for Brexit (if it happens), the UK’s suicide may continue to concentrate minds in the rest of Europe. It goes without saying that abandoning the whole idiotic project would be an equally impressive and less damaging outcome.

References and Further Reading:
(1) An article by Erica Owen and Stefanie Walter traces the way in which the UK had made the wrong or ir-rational choice at every juncture: ‘Open economy politics and Brexit: insights, puzzles, and ways forward’, Review of International Political Economy Volume 24, 2017 – Issue 2, pp. 179-202.
(2) On the neglected issue of the causes of secession and the question of its legitimacy, see Díez Medrano 2018 and Lord 2017, respectively; also Requejo and Nagel 2017.
(3) There were of course short-term advantages for the UK state in this opt-out, as well as that from membership of the Eurozone, even if they deprived British residents of two substantial advantages of EU membership: the common currency and unimpeded travel across the UK border to the rest of the EU.
(4) As I wrote to my MP (who at least has unequivocally benefited from the referendum result, since he inherited Cameron’s seat) to make this point, a pigeon crashed against my study window. This seemed an appropriate image, except that both the window and apparently the pigeon were undamaged.

Adler-Nissen, Rebecca (2014) Opting Out of the European Union: Diplomacy, Sovereignty and European Integration. Cambridge University Press.
Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, Charlotte Galpin and Ben Rosamond (2017) ‘Performing Brexit: How a post-Brexit world is imagined outside the United Kingdom’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19 (3): 573-591.


William Outhwaite, FAcSS, taught at the universities of Sussex and Newcastle, where he is Emeritus Professor of Sociology. He is the author of Europe Since 1989 (Routledge 2016) and Contemporary Europe (Routledge 2017) and recently edited Brexit: Sociological Perspectives (Anthem 2017) and (with Stephen P. Turner) The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology (2018).

Image Credit: Mike Steel Flikr