Après le Brexit: Insights from Comparative Historical Sociology

Frédéric Mérand 
Université de Montréal

On June 23, 51,9% of British voters decided to leave the European Union, crowning Europe’s annus horribilis. Between fears of European disintegration and the dream of a federal restart, it is too early to tell how things will unfold for the UK and for the continent. Apart from analyzing electoral behavior and commenting the political drama, what can sociologists tell us about the most important political event in British history since the end of the empire?

The first insight from comparative historical sociology is that nationalism remains a key political force in the contemporary world. While nations are imagined communities produced by the 19th century, we cannot underestimate their degree of institutionalization in the 21st. Few sociologists buy into political theory’s cosmopolitan view on the effects of globalization. The main themes of the UK referendum were immigration and the welfare state: in other words, who has the right to belong to the national community and thus enjoy its social and economic benefits. Preferring the political comfort of national identity, the losers of globalization sided overwhelmingly with Brexit. And they won.

That said, the contingent nature of nationhood will be tested in the aftermath of the UK referendum. Are City of London (75.3% for Remain) and Yorkshire (60.4% for Leave) really part of the same imagined community? Torn between their sentimental attachment to Caledonia, their historical involvement in the British empire, and their political attraction to the European option, what will Scots decide in the possible next referendum on independence?

The second insight is that political projects win out of strength and not out of good will. As Walter Mattli has shown, countries want to join regional integration schemes when their economies lag behind. This was certainly the case when the UK begged for EEC membership in the 1960s. Over the next decades, and significantly since the 2008 crisis, the UK caught up with and even surpassed the continent’s economic growth. As it grew in strength, the EU became less attractive.

State formation is the story of weaker regions joining stronger ones, either because they were dominated militarily or because their elites wanted to be part of the dominant class. “Coercion and capital,” in Charles Tilly’s famous catchphrase. This is not solely a matter of economic calculus. Narratives of cultural superiority can also be powerful when it comes to deciding which club you want to join. While Germany remains Europe’s economic powerhouse, the British media and the Brexit camp framed the UK’s relative resilience by contrasting it with the Eurozone’s economic and migration woes, playing up the country’s economic opportunities in global markets while lambasting the bankers who are its only source of competitive advantage.

Third, geopolitics matters. The EU is not threatened by Brexit as such. To be sure, losing a member with the second biggest GDP is a bad thing. But the UK is not a member of the Eurozone and it is not part of Schengen so from an institutional point of view, the departure of British representatives from the Council will not change a great deal to the EU’s machinery. The multiple geopolitical pressures that bedevil the EU pose a much greater challenge: Russia’s resurgent militarism, Turkey’s descent into autocratic rule, civil war in Syria, the migration crisis, and more generally Europe’s weakening influence vis-à-vis the rest of the world. In theory, the EU has the right size to deal with these challenges. But as Gary Marks argued, the tension between the benefits of scale and attachment to the community bodes ill for the future of the “European empire”.

Now, the continent’s secular (economic, demographic, cultural and political) decline should militate in favor of greater cooperation. But, beset by a slow-moving, consensus-based system, European leaders haven’t been able to join forces. Academic studies and political speeches proclaiming that it would make sense to work together did not make it happen. European disunity has many causes but its outcome is easy to predict: for a dramatic illustration, think the Polish diet’s disastrous use of the unanimity rule in the 18th Century.

The last insight from historical sociology is that international political cooperation is harder in the democratic era than it was in the heyday of the paternalist state. One of the most provocative findings we teach our undergraduate students is that nation-states do not emerge out of the proverbial social contract. Swiss mythology notwithstanding, it is extremely difficult to create a new political organization on the basis of the people’s willingness to make compromises.

The EU’s founders knew this, and that’s why they made sure the people would not be consulted. How likely was it that French citizens would agree to form an “ever closer union” with the Germans only a few years after Nazi occupation? It is no coincidence that rich nations such as Norway and Switzerland that were consulted in popular referenda never agreed to join the EU (or the European Economic Area in Switzerland’s case), while Polish and Hungarian elites joined happily despite the strong nationalist impulses of their population. National referenda about whether you want to share your resources with foreigners were never likely to work.

In sum, comparative historical sociology provides mixed comfort for European federalists. On the one hand, it historicizes the nation state, debunks nationalist myths, and relativizes the ability of small countries to address global challenges. But our discipline also explains why enlarging and democratizing the EU, thus making it more diverse and more unruly, have done little to enlist citizens in the integrationist project.

Frédéric Merand is director of CÉRIUM, the Montréal Centre for International Studies, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Montréal.


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