Brexit has broken the UK, but can it mend Europe?

As the Conservative Party works to find a new leader, Brexit has never been further out of the UK's grasp. Has Brexit made any real progress?

Before Theresa May finally surrenders Downing Street to one of her jostling Conservative successors, it might be worth asking a cruel but simple question: have the United Kingdom or Brexit made any progress since the prime minister stepped into Number 10 three years ago?

Brexit, for one, is now further out of the UK’s grasp than it was when May took office, on 13 July 2016. Her proposed deal on leaving the European Union, which never commanded a majority in Parliament, is about to lose its chief proponent and instigator. None of the alternatives is any more credible than it was yesterday – nor is set to become more so tomorrow. The country is likely to see out the summer with no parliamentary, governmental, or popular majority for leaving with a harder deal, a softer deal, no deal at all, a second referendum, or, indeed, continued membership of the EU.

Brexit is further away than it once was because the UK is more divided than ever. Where the last few months were supposed to focus minds, they have entrenched opposition. Brexit – which once meant Brexit – now means a variety of different things to different people, many of whom have forgotten what they wanted from it in the first place. And where the three past years should have built compromise, they have allowed the very notion to become a boo-word. So, the country will soon force itself back to the drawing board, without a written constitution and with a democratic fabric far less patient.

When Benjamin Franklin helped put the final touches to the American constitution in June 1787, he pointed out that there was hope for democracy only if people respected one another sufficiently to compromise. A constitution provides for written safeguards in times of passion and peril, when the country has shed the instinct to strike for middle ground. When the constitution is uncodified, the country must rely in part on the cultural consensus that dictates its national politics.

The real threat to Europe is not Brexit. It is that the continent has already forgotten what Brexit was about.

Judging by the current state of UK politics, the nation of the unwritten constitution is in trouble. Members of the Conservative Party are currently choosing between several candidates for prime minister – some of whom advocate gagging their own Parliament or vow to negotiate free trade deals by breaking British budgetary commitments to the EU (thereby undermining any trust the outside world still has in the UK).

Across the Channel, Europe has looked on with a mixture of enduring deference for British democracy, confusion at its inner workings, and concern about the politicians it has churned out. Brexit has been likened to a Monty Python farce in Amsterdam, to a Shakespearian tragedy in Brussels, and to a Blackadder script in Strasbourg

Indeed, it appears that many European capitals quietly believe that the present state of Brexit already ensures no other country will ever leave the union. The persistent lack of urgency perceptible in matters of EU reform would suggest that Brussels is similarly close to drawing the conclusion that it can simply keep calm and carry on as it did before the Brexit vote.

This, however, would be a mistake of some proportions. It would confuse the chaos Brexit has unleashed in the UK with the stubborn forces that prompted Brexit in the first place. It would throw away the most tangible sign in this part of the world that people are intent on staking a fairer claim to their political future. And it would overlook the fact that such popular uneasiness is neither confined to the UK nor likely to dissipate any time soon – it was just bound to surface across the Channel before it did elsewhere in Europe.

So, the real threat to Europe is not Brexit. It is that the continent has already forgotten what Brexit was about. If the UK’s predicament becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of letting the people raise their voices, Europe will have surrendered on both fronts: it will have lost the UK, as well as the lesson it might have learned from the whole sorry saga.

Conversely, Brexit can provide a valuable lesson if Europe stops tittering into its sleeve at British hara-kiri and takes the time to stop and think. The results of its recent parliamentary elections afford Europe some much-needed breathing space – which will be helpful only if it can put this to good use.

The election showed that, as ECFR Director Mark Leonard recently suggested, “the electorate is crying out for change” and the demise of “status quo parties” demonstrates that “business as usual is not an option”. The EU now has five more years to figure out how to allow Europeans more of a say in their future, and to show them that it is listening. It will have to do so, however, without pushing representative democracy to the verge of self-implosion with David Cameron-like haste.

So, Europe could usefully start by acknowledging an inconvenient truth: that the problems currently thrown up by direct democracy in the UK originated in the difficulties that crippled indirect democracy in Brussels. The EU should also realise that it has no mandate for “more of the same”, as Leonard points out. Finally, it should start to think of better ways to accommodate direct and indirect democracy, before the former overtakes the latter.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has already been forced to reckon with what could be termed the trap of Tocqueville. Faced with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests, he has suggested: “deliberative democracy” as a third model. The idea is to harness the perks of direct and indirect democracy while attempting to sidestep some of the pitfalls in both systems.

It could be trivially described as a layered democratic “onion”, combining enhanced participation at the local level with the protection of institutions that have been slowly built to solve complicated problems at the collective level – and which remain precious moorings in an age of anger and frustration. 

Of course, this is a narrow path to tread. But it is one answer to an intractable problem. If Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, or Strasbourg use Brexit to snuff out the concerns people express on their doorsteps, then people will simply run away with the problem. And Europe will be in no position to complain: it has by now had plenty of warning.

Olivier de France is the Research Director at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) in Paris, where he runs the European affairs programme.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Researcher

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.