UK and the EU: Brexit as failed ideology?

Dr Tim Oliver posted on the LSE Blog a thoughtful item on the various ways to understand the negotiation structure of Brexit [link to item]

He puts forward four key ones, and what I want to do is briefly comment on each.

Neoclassical Realism: This is about power relationships. The UK’s position within the EU has been weaked  as a naysayer of much of the European agenda. Externally, it is a full member of the UN security council and a member of NATO but both of these are immaterial to the Brexit outcome. As a card to play, they carry very little weight in negotiations as for the UK to abrogate its security responsibilities or use them as a bargain chip would actually signal weakness. In response, NATO would see the UK as an unreliable partner who would trade collective security for self-interest. As a global power in its own right, I suspect the evolution will be continuing geopolitical decline and loss of global influence. While we may see new alliances, for a realist, the international anarchy of inter-state relationships will become a factor in dealing with the EU and the UK will be the weaker for opting out of power relationships, for a delusional view of national power.

Constructivism: This is about norms and rules. The Brexit leave logic is that the UK can forge new relationships more productively outside the EU than within. Trade is a proxy for the power of nations to abide by norms or construct rules. As a nation among many, trade migrates to the larger blocs and the single actors take what they can get. The UK will become a rule-taker outside the EU. The test will be the deal with the EU. If the UK can’t agree a good deal with the EU, that would signal the UK can’t be negotiated with unless they get their way. This is of course silly logic at one level since the UK is leaving a trading bloc where it was a rule maker. Only fools and deluded politicians believe rule taking is preferable.

Bureaucratic politics: This is about the behaviours of bureaucratic systems. The UK has viewed the Brussels bureaucracy in some respects as a distraction from domestic affairs. The EU relationship was managed through the “Foreign and Commonwealth Office”, a strong clue on how the EU was viewed (viz. foreign). In terms of civil servants building careers, postings in Brussels were not seen as career enhancing (unlike working for the Home Office for instance); this led to very good individuals pursing careers at the Commission to the detriment of their domestic career progression. Indeed, expertise in European matters was frequently dismissed. This sorry state of affairs of course played out through the removal or departure of key individuals with expertise in European affairs. That they might have gone ‘native’ is a concern all governments have and is one reason diplomats are routinely rotated. But the EU requires deep expertise both because it is a unique body of law but also because the UK was a key actor in that system. I suspect that the current negotiations are being handled badly partly because the UK team lacks the ‘native’ understanding; this may explain why the government is afraid of civil servants with strong EU views; like Orwell’s 1984, this doesn’t fit with the mind set in government. The consequence is more about failure for the UK from incompetence than from bad bargaining.

Cognitivism: This is about ideas and mindsets. The UK has seen the EU as simply a trade arrangement, consistent with years of free trading. The EU sees itself as an idea, in the same was the US sees itself as an ideology. There is nothing wrong with that. The weakness is the UK sees itself defined through trade and not as a national idea called the UK; indeed it not sufficient to argue the UK’s ideology rests on notions of sovereignty and taking back control as this flies in the face of the fact that all nations are constrained by treaties of one sort or another should they choose — what Brexit does signal is the UK can abrogate a treaty obligation and may be prima facie unreliable. The Brexit debate has shown how poorly prepared the UK politicians on the government side are, and who actively avoid discussing the social dimension of the EU — indeed look very uncomfortable discussion the rights of 3 million EU citizens within the UK. Social Europe is made up of academic networks amongst research institutions, or families brought together across borders, of young people experiencing another culture through Erasmus exchanges, even of duty free wine and beer, freedom to travel, enjoying the security the European Health Insurance Card brings and so on. As an ideology, the UK dismisses this as a ‘project’ and emphasises that all things about money matter more than people. Barnier and colleagues emphasise the primacy of people. This is consistent with the ideological basis for the EU’s bargaining position. The result is incomprehension by the UK of the EU position, while the EU knows the UK position well as it has played out over 40 years of opposition to social Europe.

From a decision making perspective, I concur with Oliver that each in some way is being played out. The salience of the various issues is rising for those who voted in the referendum and showing the problems that were indeed well-known beforehand, by experts of course. But rising public salience will constrain politicians’ actions as technical issues evolve into political ones. For instance, cross-border access to healthcare (1708/71) is full of technical details, but the public salience will be loss of healthcare when they travel. The departure of EMA from the UK looks like a technical issue of moving offices, but its salience lies in drug companies deprioritising the country for launching new medicines, with possible diminution of research infrastructure. Inside each technical issue that can be hammered out by civil servants, lurks a political issue that can only be resolved through public discussion.