How national identity shaped the EU: Brexit as a case study

Liberal institutions developments demonstrates culture and identity plays significant role for the states than establishing a liberal world order

Diana Galeeva

Published: Updated:

The news announced on the morning of June 24, 2016, continues to be one of the most controversial subjects in world politics.

The night before, the UK decided by referendum to leave the European Union, the ‘Leave’ campaign claiming the majority with 52% of the vote. In the aftermath of this decision, some of the most frequently encountered questions are: What will happen to the European Unionafter March 2017, when the UK and EU will apply an agreement called Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, providing an opportunity to decide the terms of splitting? What kind of deal on immigration and trade will be established between the UK and EU? What will have changed for the EU and the UK by the summer of 2019?

We can predict answers to these questions by analyzing the statements of world leaders, but with no precedent for the issue discussed, it is impossible to definitively answer these questions now. We can, however, begin to answer the question ‘why did Brexit happen?’, with an investigation guided by the leading schools of International relations (IR) theory.

The contributing factor that I will take into consideration is national identity.

Drawing on an examination of liberalist and constructivist theories about how collaboration and peaceful relations between states are built and maintained, this article argues that the liberalist school of thought does not adequately describe current European politics. It is the liberalist argument that worldwide institutions are key to ensuring cooperation between states. By contrast, the constructivist approach, which takes into consideration strategic cultures, and the importance of norms and identities, could explain why Brexit happened. This article will focus first on the debates between liberalists and constructivists; second, it will examine the European Union members’ identities; and

Finally, it will consider the consequences of Brexit for European power politics.

• Liberalism and Constructivism

In order to suggest why Brexit happened, this paper focuses on the differences between two leading schools of thought in International Relations (IR) theory: liberalism and constructivism. Representatives of the liberalist school believe that global institutions play the main role in ensuring cooperation between states (Shiraev, 2014). One of their areas of expertise is institutional peace theory, which attempts to explain how collaboration can be sustained in the anarchy of power politics. Institutional liberalism is a modern theory in IR that suggests that international organizations and institutions, such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union can maintain cooperation among states (Sorensen, 2006).

In opposition to this school of thought, constructivists argue that global political relations between countries are socially constructed (Friedberg, 2005: 34). In other words, states’ relationships are based on three categories: norms (beliefs about both what is successful, and what is right in worldwide politics); strategic cultures (‘sets of beliefs about the fundamental character of international politics and about the best ways of coping with it, especially as regards the utility of force and the prospects for cooperation’) (Friedberg, 2005:34); and identities (Wendt, 1999, 1995, 1994). One of the well-defined understandings of identity is suggested by Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper (2000), who assert that identity is a foundation for political and social action. A co-operative phenomenon representing similarity among members of a group, identity is understood as both a key feature of collective or individual ‘selfhood’, and the outcome of political or social action, or the result of competing or various discourses.

The establishment of liberal institutions, such as the EU, is predominantly a liberalist impulse. Further examination demonstrates that from 1973 this proved to be true, however, in the aftermath of Brexit—a decision made at least in part in the name of autonomy and independence—it may be necessary to consider whether constructivist thinking has begun to pervade the EU arena.

Diana Galeeva

This definition of identity continues to be one the most discussed issues in IR theory and political science. Kant (1991) and Hegel’s (1999) debate demonstrates that identity cannot be formed exclusively of simultaneous construction and the negative stereotype of an ‘other’. While some scholars such as Huntington (1996) and Schmitt (1976) apply this binary in their works, others, Nietzsche (Connoly, 2000) and Habermas (1984; 1990) consider methods of overcoming it. Lebow (2008) challenges the debate by suggesting that identities usually emerge prior to the creation of ‘others’, and that ‘others’ do not need to become linked with negative stereotypes. Identities, norms and strategic cultures are created by the predominant explanations of a society’s shared history (Friedberg, 2005):

‘They are transmitted across generational lines by the process of education and acculturation and, though not cast in stone, they do tend to be highly resistant to change.’ (ibid, 2005: 34).

As previously mentioned, the establishment of liberal institutions, such as the EU, is predominantly a liberalist impulse. Further examination demonstrates that from 1973 this proved to be true, however, in the aftermath of Brexit—a decision made at least in part in the name of autonomy and independence—it may be necessary to consider whether constructivist thinking has begun to pervade the EU arena. This discussion will examine the actions of EU members, with this in mind.

• European Union and its member’s identities

The European Union is a politico-economic union consisting of 28 states (officially, the UK is still considered an EU member). The EU can trace its roots to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and the European Economic Community (EEC), created in 1951 and 1958 by the Inner Six states (France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, West Germany and Netherlands). Signing the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 marked the establishment of the European Union under its present name (Telegraph, 2016). The EU functions as a single market that allows free movement of capital, services, goods and people between EU countries.

The EU states below are presented in the order that each was accepted as a member: Belgium (founder), France (founder), Italy (founder), Luxembourg (founder), the Netherlands (founder), Germany (founder), Ireland (1973), Denmark (1973), the United Kingdom (1973), Greece (1981), Portugal (1986), Spain (1986), Sweden (1995), Austria (1995), Finland (1995), the Republic of Cyprus (2004), Malta (2004), Czech Republic (2004), Slovakia (2004), Slovenia (2004), Estonia (2004), Hungary (2004), Latvia (2004), Lithuania (2004), Poland (2004), Bulgaria (2007), Romania (2007), Croatia (2013). With the extremely varied cultures and histories of these states in mind, by applying Brubaker and Cooper’s definition of identity—which is dependent on similarity, and is a basis for conceptions of individual or collective selfhood—it is arguable that after 2004, a coherent ‘EU identity’ might not have been possible.

The newest members became ‘others’; states that had developed very differently, and whose cultures and historical heritage contrasted starkly with that of the states that joined in the 1980s.

A liberalist interpretation might be that the success of the EU is evident in its role (as an international institution) in ensuring peaceful cohesion and collaboration between states with considerable differences and priorities.

However, a constructivist interpretation would point out that while some members clearly benefits from the union, representatives from other states have begun to protest that their countries’ individual identities are being compromised, and have expressed concern for the future development of their countries. This was certainly the case for the United Kingdom.

• Brexit + constructivism = ‘domino effect’

The former Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned for the referendum on EU membership. Previously, the UK resisted some key EU innovations, such as using a single currency, and the Schengen Treaty that relaxed border controls. The main concerns that the British leadership present about remaining in the EU are the strain that the payment of benefit’s to migrants has on the economy, and the need for greater protection for EU members in the Eurozone (BBC, 2016).

During the lead up to the referendum, many issues were targeted by both the Remain and Leave campaigns. Much of the controversy stemmed from debates over subjects such as economic advantages and disadvantages, national security, legal autonomy, class, education, and the environment. One of the main arguments of the winning side—The Leave campaign—was the immigration issue. The UK Independent Party leader Nigel Farage presented an anti-migrant poster, promoting voters to ‘take back control of our borders’, showing a queue of refugees and migrants on the Croatia-Slovenia border –part of Europe’s passport free Schengen area (The guardian, 2016). Critics pointed out the image’s unintentional similarity to Nazi propaganda footage of migrants broadcasted in a BBC documentary from 2005.

As the result of the UK’s referendum is increasingly welcomed by politicians from other EU countries, we might be witnessing the beginning of a ‘domino effect’.

Diana Galeeva

By contrast, former Prime Minister David Cameron, one of the leaders of the Remain campaign, argued that the UK’s membership of the EU made it stronger, increased economic development through immigration and protected workers’ rights (Open migration, 2016). Taking into consideration the previously discussed views of constructivists, the identity of other EU members became one of the main weapons for both campaigns, however, the Leave campaign used ‘others’ in the negative way as suggested by Huntington (1996) and Schmitt (1976).

The new development of the United Kingdom will be influenced by a focus on developing a sense of the state’s identity. On the 5th October 2016 the new Prime-Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May (2016) advocated what some have interpreted as a new ‘illiberal’ (Economist, 2016:1) direction for the state, describing Brexit as a ‘quiet revolution’, and a ‘turning point’ in the history of the UK: ‘Time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up’. Mrs. May announced that orders and discipline, obligatory, borders will be strengthened; foreign workers kept out, patriotism respected (Economist, 2016:1). ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word citizenship means’, Mrs. May proclaimed, emphasizing the role of British identity for the future of the country.

Attempts to preserve Hungarian identity have also been discussed recently. On the 2nd of October 2016 in the Hungarian vote in a referendum on the EU‘s migrant quotas, only 1.7% of voters answered “Yes” to the question “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizen into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly’ (RT, 2016). In other words, more than 98% of partakers voted to reject new refugees, however, the referendum failed because less than 50% of the electorate voted. Taking into consideration that the UK example includes a decision which only half the country supported, and the Hungarian example only collected half of the electorate’s responses, it is arguable that the evidence of an increased emphasis on the importance of national identity in the EU is not conclusive. However, as the result of the UK’s referendum is increasingly welcomed by politicians from other EU countries, we might be witnessing the beginning of a ‘domino effect’, which would seem to demonstrate that European politics have started to develop according to a more constructivist worldview.

In France, the leader of Front National (FN) Marine Le Pen welcomed Britain’s decision to leave the EU as ‘a victory of freedom’, and has been calling for a French referendum during the last three years. Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) has also called for the national referendum (Open migration, 2016). Highlighting the Brexit outcome for the whole EU and how the role of perceiving ‘others’ has changed in the current European politics, Anatole Kaletsky pointed out: ‘Before, advocates of leaving the EU or euro could be ridiculed as fantasists or denounced as fascists (or ultra-leftists). This is no longer possible’.

Rather than basing their foreign policy on liberal development, increasingly, European politics are influenced by an increased sense of national identity, which presents itself in observable efforts to prevent ‘others’ from undermining a nation’s sense of self.

The current development of liberal institutions demonstrates that culture and identity plays a more significant role for the states than establishing a liberal world order.

The main argument of institutional liberalism is that only international organizations, such as the EU, can influence interstate cooperation, but this does not reflect the reality of current EU developments. The constructivist academic Huntington (1996:321) in his book Clash of Civilizations, pointed out that ‘a multicultural world is unavoidable because the global empire is impossible’. In other words, it is impossible to create an international organization with members presenting different identities, cultural characteristics and histories, which will succeed in promoting a liberal approach to developing the country. Brexit, and the wider state of current EU politics, demonstrates this.
Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, political islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010).

Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter university in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She can be contacted on diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk