Thinking personally about Brexit

Mark Dawson reflects on the Brexit referendum as a UK citizen living in Europe.

This essay is from a Working Paper of the European University Institute, Department of Law, entitled “Brexit and Academic Citizenship” (LAW 2016.20, San Domenico di Fiesole 2016, available here). The paper, edited by Christian Joerges, collects a series of personal reflections on the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The essays do not engage with the legal and constitutional issues that arise from this event – these aspects have received comment elsewhere. Rather, the editor has solicited personal reflections from a group whose scholarly journey included the European University Institute, a hub for transforming, and integrating Europe. Aware of this privileged position, the authors shed light on how the result of the referendum and its aftermath may impact on the UK and the European Union.

I entered the EUI in 2005 as one of a dozen or so researchers from the UK. A running joke at the time was to do a quick round of the Mensa, or refectory, staring at tables of French sitting with French, German with German, Greek with Greek, etc., and remark what a success European academic integration had been! The broader truth, though, was that this was real integration – not just of chemicals and Cassis de Dijon, but of friends of all nationalities – sharing ideas, sharing drinks (and, of course, rather often sharing beds, too). It was an integration of peoples.

It is little surprise that those of us in the UK who returned to our home countries or filtered off elsewhere in Europe and the world were normally committed europhiles, even if we often pretended otherwise to ourselves. We had experienced what Neil Fligstein dubbed the “Euroclash” in person:[1] we were the privileged, mobile few for whom the EU had provided four years of quiet reflection and good food in paradise. We also faced the shock of following UK politics from afar, or experiencing it in reality once home. For us, the EU was part and parcel of who we were. For our fellow Britons, it was a foreign entity. This identity clash explains part of what I can imagine is a common feeling among many contributors to this publication: the UK’s very rejection of integration makes it a somewhat foreign entity for me now too.

The integration of people had simply not occurred. Britons ventured abroad but often simply to buy flats in UK bubbles in the Costa del Sol, or to be a part of a different trans-national project – the vestiges of the old Commonwealth that offered the promise of freedom and prosperity not in Berlin but in Brisbane. Meanwhile, those who came to British shores were rather too easily cast as outsiders (people who were here as part of a market, to cash-in, rather than to contribute to society). This was not free movement but “economic migration”; it was not a reciprocal exercise but the entry of outsiders on the take (for “our jobs”, “our benefits”, and “our homes”). The reaction recalls the debate over gay rights a decade ago – one’s affinity to the cause was often not determined by political, but by personal affiliation:[2] Do you know someone who is gay and are you able to step into their shoes? (hence, the priority of coming out to the LGBTQ movement). Too few people had a stake in the EU project, and too few were able to identify with those who did. Too few could make it onto that Tuscan hill with us.

Surely, the question that Brexit poses to all of us committed to, or simply interested in, the EU is how to build that stake. How does the EU become something that can be defended not just at the level of trade statistics, but as a personal and political project? One has the feeling that, without this connection, without a sense of commitment to Europeanism, however thin, the EU has no hope of facing down the next catastrophe. The dis-integration of the Union is not, in this sense, a question of self-interest and preferences – if it were, the people of the UK (already enjoying a cherry-picked version of integration) would have been easily bought over – but a question of whether people perceive Europe as being a part of the “self” that defines their interests.

I have little doubt that, for those young people who voted to “Remain” in large numbers, this was, to a far greater extent, the case. Those most likely to embrace the EU were the “Easyjet” generation: those who had studied on Erasmus, who hopped to Barcelona for the weekend; and who saw in Europe both economic and cultural opportunity.[3] This is precisely the generation of which we Ph.D students were a part. Those most likely to embrace “Leave” – as an amusing survey of favourite brand products released just after the referendum told us – were Bovril drinkers and lovers of HP sauce;[4] those for whom English, rather than global, identity was both real and important. As any observation of modern politics, including the US, tells us, today’s politics is more about passion and identity than ever before. It is not just a question of left-right, but of openness versus closedness; of accepting the integration of borders and peoples or resisting it as a kind of existential and personal threat. Brexit has not opened-up but simply revealed new cleavages in our politics.[5]

The EU must consider how it can channel, rather than be caught in the crevasse of, these cleavages. In short, there is no future for the EU without an answer to the new political divides opening up across the whole of the developed world. There is unfortunately too much in the EU present constitutional structure, which makes it less fit for this task. The EU’s Treaty rules – rules that settle a host of questions over economic policy, market access, discrimination, and many other issues that speak directly to the political concerns of voters – are a prime example. They do not attempt to bring individuals into a political community, but rather define the ends of the political community in advance. In particular, many of the EU’s rules – its construction around the market – continue to trap the EU in a discourse of objects, rather than people. Putting it more bluntly, the EU is committed to one side of a debate about personal and political identity that is increasingly leaving millions of citizens on the other side.

Fortunately, there are ideas about how the EU can equip itself for globalisation’s new politics. The clamouring of Scots and others to retain their EU citizenship offers one path down the route, for example, of an EU citizenship that is finally divorced from piggy-backing on national citizenship rules.[6] Others seek answers in roads not taken – the need, for example, for integration to address the needs not just of the Easyjet generation, but integration’s losers.[7] Still others argue for, as Christian Joerges has discussed in his introduction, further attempts to seek a synthesis of national and European identities, including through institutional innovations. One fillip of Brexit is surely the pressing need and impetus for new ideas, and the possibility (finally) that they will be listened to. Let’s hope that some of these ideas give the next generation of Europeans a surrogate, however small, for that sense of belonging that we had (and often took for granted).

[1]     Neil Fligstein, Euroclash: The EU, European Identity and the Future of Europe,(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3]     On a prior effort of EU law scholars to activate this generation, see Moritz Hartmann and Floris de Witte, “Regeneration Europe: Towards Another Europe”, (2014) 14 German Law Journal, p.5.

[5]     See Mark Dawson, “The EU Must Face the New Politics of Globalization” (2016) 17 German Law Journal.

[6]     See Daniel Augenstein and Mark Dawson, “After Brexit: Time for a Further De-coupling of European and National Citizenship?”, Verfassungsblog, see

[7]     See Sacha Garben, “A New Social Agenda for Europe?”, forthcoming, on file with author.

More about the author

  • Mark Dawson , Professor for European Law and Governance