As Frank Schimmelfennig, Professor of European Politics at ETH Zurich, contended in 2018, in relation to the European Union (EU) “crises are open decision-making situations … and present a manifest threat and a perceived significant probability of (dis)integration, but may also trigger reform activities leading to more integration” Schimmelfennig (2018). Although Schimmelfennig’s contention was not focused on the United Kingdom’s (UK) exit from the EU, his assertion perfectly characterizes the decision-making crisis that the EU faced following the 2016 Brexit leave referendum. Now, six years since it took place, we can appropriately reflect upon whether the Brexit referendum and the socio-political movements it induced stood as a catalyst for the (dis)integration or, conversely, the further integration of the EU. Vitally, current literature in comparative politics and European studies, as well as primary polling data and Gastinger’s (2021) EU exit index, provides an opportunity to explore the dynamics of integration and domestic stay or leave sentiments. While research on Brexit-related public opinion has burgeoned in recent years, most inquiries have focused exclusively on British integration perspectives and voting behavior in the Brexit referendum, while Brexit’s effect on integration and voter choice in EU-27 states, especially surrounding domestic stay or leave sentiments, have been relatively ignored.
As the only EU crisis created by internal socio-political factors, Brexit has had a significant effect on the dynamics of European integration, foremost acting as a force for European unity. The 2016 leave referendum fundamentally altered “European integration, not only in terms of material capabilities…but also its ideational pillars, through the revision of the principles and priorities of the EU” (Szucko, 2020). Prior to the referendum, there was a widespread opinion that Brexit signaled the beginning of Europe’s (dis)integration, with more departures an inevitability. However, instead of bowing to (dis)integration sentiment, the EU deliberated on its accomplishments and failings, using Brexit as a pretext to fall back on its European identity and unite the Union. As Hobolt and de Vries (2016) contended, “gone are the days when élites pursued European integration with no regard to public opinion.” Rather, there is now a common belief amongst European leaders that the EU’s future “hinges more than ever on citizens’ support for the European integration project” (Hobolt & de Vries, 2016). Thus, retrospectively, Brexit served as something no one expected, a catalyst for advancing European integration.
In 2017, at the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, then president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, contended that “only a unified Europe would be able to protect its sovereignty, and vitally, be capable of combatting external threats” (Tusk, 2017). Such a contention, beyond simple rhetoric, characterizes the reformulation of European integration. Following Brexit, European institutions have made a concerted effort to re-evaluate the objectives and processes of integration and, more broadly, to redefine the values of the EU. As Butorina (2020) accurately notes, “the first merit of Brexit is the awakening of the European elites from a state of ideological conformism and inaction.” Under this new agenda, the EU has attempted to strengthen its international standing and reorganize around the common grounds that support the Union. Specifically, the EU has sought to promote dialogue surrounding reform amongst member states whilst implementing new policies surrounding digitization and climate change in an effort to increase internal bloc support. In this sense, Brexit has pushed the EU to implement a new agenda and in doing so, has forced “Brussels to not only postulate its values and norms but also substantiate them” (Butorina, 2020).
As part of the reformulation of European integration, there has been an internal shift within the EU towards addressing Europe’s political schisms. Following the Brexit referendum, many EU citizens were concerned that more member states would follow the UK’s example. However, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of state withdrawals, and Brexit as a whole, has been less prevalent. Specifically, in less developed nations, a huge economic shock like that from Covid-19 might push a disgruntled population to seek major political change. However, thanks primarily to the stable internal structures of European institutions, the pandemic has simply served to occupy and move popular discourses away from the question of leaving the Union. In this sense, as Codogno (2022) asserts, “of the many problems the EU is currently facing, Brexit has happily receded from the foreground,” with the pandemic, international relations challenges, and economic recovery replacing Brexit as the criteria for judging the utility of EU membership. Thus, it can be argued that the neoliberal promise of perpetual European integration that underpinned the EU’s actions prior to Brexit no longer holds. Rather, the EU is acutely aware that future European integration and unity are far from guaranteed and that the popularity of leaving the EU is influenced by the Union’s capacity to address its current challenges successfully.
Concomitantly, Brexit has substantially influenced the national attitudes within the EU-27, discouraging additional departures thanks to both the EU’s harsh bargaining position during exit negotiations and how leaving the Union has subverted British national interests. Prior to Brexit, there was a history of smaller nations reconsidering their EU membership on the grounds that they would be better served to have complete autonomy over their domestic legislation. However, following Brexit, the remaining EU-27 have observed the destabilizing impact that the referendum decision has had on the British economy and its politics, which has served to inoculate them against the desire to secede from the EU. Markedly, even Eurosceptic national-populist parties have softened their anti-EU rhetoric, claiming to want to alter the EU from the inside rather than destroy it. As Hobolt et al. (2021) conclusively contended, “there has been a significant decline in hypothetical leave voting since the Brexit referendum.” In this sense, the political and economic fallout after the Brexit referendum has broadly undermined European people’s desire to leave the EU and, if anything, brought the remaining EU member states closer together.
From the UK’s perspective, Brexit continues to symbolize a process of disintegration; however, its impacts on the European project have been contradictory, fueling integrative pressures that have furthered pro-EU domestic sentiments. A Pew Research poll found that Greece had seen a “26 percentage point surge in favorable views of the EU from late 2016 to 2019” (Wike et al., 2019), with similar increases in Spain and France. This was a significant shift from early 2016, when another Pew Research poll indicated that “42 percent of EU citizens wanted greater authority restored to their national capitals” (Stokes, 2016), with the EU overall experiencing a sharp dip in public support. Notably, these polls reveal that the EU public is aware of the potential repercussions of another leave movement, with voters instead expressing a clear preference for maintaining the status quo and preserving European integration values. In this sense, Brexit has functioned as a measure for citizens’ perceptions of their nation’s continued membership in the EU-27.
Markedly, Brexit’s function as a sort of ‘litmus test’ for leave sentiments can be applied to see whether another EU exit is likely in the short term and long term. The ‘EU exit index’ proposed by Gastinger (2021) stands as a valuable way to judge short term support for leave movements, assessing each EU member state’s inclination to leave the Union through a set of discrete variables. Valuably, as Gastinger (2021) notes, other departures are unlikely in the short term, with no “indicators pointing in the direction of future exits,” as most countries’ exit propensities dropped after the Brexit referendum. However, in the longer term, Brexit’s position as a deterrent against future leave movements may waver, especially if a less chaotic exit boosts support for leaving among the existing EU-27 states. In this regard, the most serious threat to Europe’s future integration is a more successful member state succession, for although Brexit may be viewed as a ‘one-time occurrence,’ multiple exits would represent a significant setback to the European project.
Thus, there is demonstratable evidence to support the assertion that Brexit has substantially influenced the dynamics of European integration, serving as a centripetal force for European unity. Moreover, Brexit has changed national perspectives inside EU-27 countries, undermined European people’s desire to leave the Union and dissuaded further withdrawals. That being said, while Brexit has not resulted in (dis)integration, further state departures could enhance anti-EU support and represent a concerted threat to European integration.
Butorina, O. (2020). The Shrinking of the European Union and Its Integration Potential. Herald Of The Russian Academy Of Sciences, 90(6), 680-687. https://doi.org/10.1134/s1019331620060040
Codogno, L. (2022). The EU is facing many difficulties, but Brexit isn’t one of them. The Guardian. Retrieved 11 February 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/01/eu-facing-difficulties-brexit-britain-trade.
Gastinger, M. (2021). Introducing the EU exit index measuring each member state’s propensity to leave the European Union. European Union Politics, 22(3), 566-585. https://doi.org/10.1177/14651165211000138
Hobolt, S., & de Vries, C. (2016). Public Support for European Integration. Annual Review Of Political Science, 19(1), 413-432. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-042214-044157
Hobolt, S., Popa, S., Van der Brug, W., & Schmitt, H. (2021). The Brexit deterrent? How member state exit shapes public support for the European Union. European Union Politics, 23(1), 100-119. https://doi.org/10.1177/14651165211032766
Schimmelfennig, F. (2018). European integration (theory) in times of crisis. A comparison of the euro and Schengen crises. Journal Of European Public Policy, 25(7), 969-989. https://doi.org/10.1080/13501763.2017.1421252
Stokes, B. (2016). How European Countries View Brexit. Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Retrieved 11 February 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2016/06/07/euroskepticism-beyond-brexit/.
Szucko, A. (2020). Brexit and the Differentiated European (Dis)Integration. Contexto Internacional, 42(3), 621-646. https://doi.org/10.1590/s0102-8529.2019420300005
Tusk, D. (2017). Speech by President Donald Tusk at the ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome. Consilium.europa.eu. Retrieved 11 February 2022, from https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/03/25/tusk-ceremony-rome-speech/.
Wike, R., Poushter, J., Silver, L., Delvin, K., Fetterolf, J., Castillo, A., & Huang, C. (2019). Views on the European Union across Europe. Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Retrieved 11 February 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/10/14/the-european-union/.