The Crisis That Wasn’t? Brexit and Membership Crisis in the European Union

SOLID Workshop, 14-15th December 2021, online

The Crisis That Wasn’t?
Brexit and Membership Crisis in the European Union

Brexit Workshop agenda LSE

Responses to the outcome of the Brexit referendum on 23rd June, 2016, were understandably alarmist. There was talk of a likely ‘domino effect’ (e.g. then foreign minister of Austria Kurz), several high-ranking officials demanded resignation of the EU President (e.g. Czech foreign minister Zaoralek) and, as ever, Brexit provided an unmissable opportunity to spot a ‘wake-up call’ for more reform (e.g. the Dutch and the Swedish Prime Ministers, Rutte and Löfgren). A widely held view in academia was, as Sara Hobolt (2018: 243) put it, that “[t]he Brexit referendum has illustrated how the lack of public support for the EU can challenge the very foundations of the European project.”

In this workshop, we will discuss why the fundamental challenge that Brexit represented did not materialise. In our research project SOLID, we consider this a puzzle because the challenge was and is real. The EU has not profoundly changed due to Brexit. Euroscepticism and populist challenger parties remain a presence in many member states, despite their ups and downs. The open defiance of judicial checks and balances on democracy in Hungary and Poland raise the prospect of (partial) exit within the European Union.

Contributors are invited to question our point of departure and argue that it was always unlikely that the EU would have a membership crisis in the aftermath of the UK referendum. Or, on the contrary, that Brexit is a lingering crisis that can still erupt and tear the union apart. Our own take is that the EU is a polity with fragile foundations, notably in the guise of ill-defined borders, weak political participation channels that would send clear warning signals up to the EU level and, compared to national welfare states, limited means to directly ensure the loyalty of its citizens. But the Brexit negotiations also demonstrated that the EU has sufficient political resources to forge a consensus among 27 member states with very different perspectives on the UK’s departure and to externalise the potential for conflict around the Irish border. This theoretical perspective in the tradition of Stein Rokkan and Albert Hirschman (Bartolini 2005) distinguishes our line of inquiry from perspectives that, for instance, would stress Britain’s role as a traditional ‘awkward partner’ without which the EU is in any case better off or one that would see the significance of Brexit as part of a more general rise in identity politics that could still ‘open the floodgates’.

We envisage 1.5 days for our workshop, starting on Tuesday, 14th December, in the morning and ending after lunch on Wednesday, the 15th. We hope for an in-person event but have a back-up plan for a hybrid format.

The programme is dedicated to three overarching questions.

  1. Was Brexit an EU crisis that wasn’t?

In this session, we would like to discuss different interpretations of Brexit and what it means for European integration generally. This includes contributions that see an EU crisis in the UK’s departure as highly contingent still.

  1. Why did the predicted membership crisis not materialise?

Here contributors are invited to present partial or full explanations. For instance, by answering question such as: how have similar processes of politicisation of EU membership been contained elsewhere? Or why have parties in mainland Europe not taken recourse to in/out referenda when challenged by a Eurosceptic fringe? Or how has the EU-27 strategy of negotiations managed to hold the union together?

  1. What are the conceivable scenarios for the EU’s relationship with ‘awkward partners’?

In this final session, we take stock of the EU’s evolving relationship with the UK since departure. We would also be interested in contributions about emerging conflict lines with other member states, most prominently with Hungary and Poland over the rule of law.

The planned outcome of the workshop is a special issue, to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal at a time that we should discuss in the wrap-up session at the end.