The Impossibility of Disentangling Integration

The Impossibility of Disentangling Integration

Antje Wiener

Since the Brexit referendum, the many contestations about each step towards realising the UK’s exit from the EU have generated more knowledge about European integration than many might have thought possible. In the best-case scenario, this knowledge will ultimately prevent Brexit. The option is still there, as sovereignty is gradually being restored to Parliament. As we witness a giant leap forward with regard to public knowledge about the EU, it becomes obvious that the reversal of British-EU entanglement is a task of unknown proportions. This multi-layered integration process can hardly be reversed.

As in Wittgenstein’s metaphor of a thread that gains its identity through the twisting fibre on fibre, the EU’s identity has emerged through the practice of integrating member states. This identity persists, despite many contestations regarding the EU’s democratic deficit and the legitimation of the EU’s political role in light of them. These meanings cannot be undone but require re-enacting to change. Over more than five decades of law making the EU turned into a novel type of regional integration that has become more than an international organization of states (Wiener, Börzel and Risse 2018). Despite its legal foundations as an – albeit considerably advanced and constitutionally sustained – international organization, its sociocultural foundations have long passed the stage of a ‘naked’ treaty. In other words, it is impossible to withdraw from the EU as one might cancel membership in a club. As expected a year ago, this has become particularly embarrassing now it has transpired that the UK has not only lost the power to direct its own exit from the EU but also that the completion of the Brexit procedure will take a long time in coming – indeed, it may ultimately not be completed.

Instead of removing the UK from an EU that is heralded by the leave campaign as an undemocratic supranational organization, the Brexit referendum is more likely to generate a boost for the EU. For the ongoing contestations have created novel opportunities for a broad spectrum of stakeholders across all EU member states, including the UK, to engage with the EU’s lingering democratic deficit. This process has been generating a growing public awareness about the EU’s principles and procedures that is generated through the contestatory practices of a growing number of stakeholders. According to this scenario, the post-referendum and pre-Brexit process has been having an effect on how the EU is perceived by a diversity of stakeholders (citizens and government representatives alike) both in the UK and beyond. It is therefore not altogether unlikely, albeit unintendedly so, for it to ultimately contribute to a more positive image of the EU. In the case of Brexit this would imply making the EU stronger, and the UK weaker, and – in the case of Parliament overturning Brexit – it would make both the EU and the UK stronger.

The decision to actually walk down the path towards leaving the EU, even though repeatedly confirmed, does not appear more doable or, for that matter, likely as the referendum day is further and further behind us. Academic research on the embeddedness of the Acquis Communautaire confirms this view. For the acquis entails the body of primary and secondary law that has to be interpreted with reference to the social environment of its implementation.

The post-referendum pre-Brexit contestations demonstrate a clash among the Leave and Remain campaigns, respectively, based on exclusive preferences with regard to the fundamental norms of democracy and free movement. With regard to the sovereignty norm, the question is whether the ‘referendum result must be respected’, as the Leave campaign holds, or whether ‘Parliament must have a say’, as the vote-Remain campaign would argue, with regard to free market access (UK to EU) vis-à-vis rejecting the fundamental EU principle of the right of free movement (EU to UK).

As the Brexit discourse reveals, through multiple contestations including stakeholders across the UK and Europe, the situation has unwittingly changed from a threat to the EU (that is, a weakening of the EU following a British exit) to a window of opportunity (that is, countering the EU’s perceived legitimacy deficit through stakeholder involvement in contestations). This shift from threat to opportunity represents a rather welcome development for the crisis-battered EU of the 2010s. After decades of ‘permissive consensus’ and the ‘democracy deficit’, Brexit has kicked off long-overdue contestations. This facilitates a welcome ‘valve’ for dissenters of all stripes to chime in. And as such it may create a novel ‘site’ for contestation to voice views that are more likely to be heard against the threat of further EU exits.

In effect, then, the complex practices of disentangling the UK from the EU are less likely to deliver on the promise of re-establishing British sovereignty vis-à-vis the EU than instead to strengthen the EU’s legitimacy. In the end, Prime Minister May may win in the long run if she reconsiders her decision in favour of Brexit and is able to demonstrate to all voters in Britain (Leave and Remain) that the UK has triggered the most effective democratization process the EU has been confronted with since its inception. This insight would lead May to engage more fully with the spectrum of democratic practices and procedures available to her, beginning with a proper debate in Parliament.

Much of the referendum campaign language claimed to get Britain ‘back’ from the EU. The discourse is one of righting a wrong. Its public claim for legitimacy is high. In the aftermath of the referendum, ‘disentangling’ has become a central term. Now, the task is to identify the parts that actually belong to Britain at the end of the day when all areas of integration have been ‘disentangled’. Whereas the Leave campaign was outward oriented, boasting that it would re-establish the old ways (of what?) and through them political legitimacy, the direction of the process triggered by the leave-vote now became inward oriented, suggesting a degree of complexity difficult to comprehend for the non-involved voters. The process has begun to sound more like bringing the EU into Britain than taking Britain out of the EU. So far, the legitimacy promise has proved hard to deliver.

The change in the Brexit discourse demonstrates the dawning realization, first, that, rather than getting back what had been put into the EU, the task entails the more detailed process of disentangling legislation, regulations, procedures and other details and, second, that, contrary to what the British voters were led to believe, the task is likely to be massive and time consuming. It may, in fact, not even lead to Britain’s leaving the EU. In other words, instead of the frequently proclaimed clear-cut ‘never-again’ ‘once-and-for-all’ decision that was promised by Cameron, a murky and long-winded process stands to be expected. A process that was supposed to introduce a leaner politics with less interference from ‘Brussels’ began with the creation of new administrative and political posts in the UK and in Brussels. As the shock of the referendum result was gradually replaced by day-to-day politics, the question of who actually won became increasingly hard to answer.

Apart from lacking a clear-cut solution, the post-referendum and pre-Brexit landscape in Britain is marked by political turmoil, emotional exhaustion, regional division and economic loss. The absence of joy and perspective in a country that conducted a referendum that few wanted, some thought necessary and now all have come to loathe is startling. The challenging situation for politics, voters and the economy alike is ultimately due to an underestimation of what the EU has become after more than five decades of integration and how the UK, and with it the British people, has changed through its taking part in this process over more than four decades. After a year of public debate and manifold public contestations, the Brexit referendum may no longer be considered as the legitimate site where British sovereignty is determined. The threat with regard to both the Peace Process in Northern Ireland and the fundamental rights of European citizens has raised substantial questions which were reflected in the December 13 vote in the House of Commons.

Outhwaite, William (2017) Brexit. Sociological Responses. London: Anthem.
Wiener, Antje, Tanja Börzel and Thomas Risse, eds (2018) European Integration Theory, Oxford: OUP.


Antje Wiener is a Professor of Political Science, especially Global Governance, at the University of Hamburg, and a By-Fellow at Hughes Hall University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is A Theory of Contestation (Berlin: Springer 2014), and she co-edited, with Anthony F. Long, the Handbook on Global Constitutionalism (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar 2017).

Image Credit: Sarah Joy