Brexit, the Democratic Question in Europe, and the Future of the EU

December 09, 2019
Rosa Balfour
3 min read
The United Kingdom is holding elections in which polarized political leaders claim to represent the people against the elite.

The United Kingdom is holding elections in which polarized political leaders claim to represent the people against the elite. As British-based Turkish novelist Elif Shafak recently noted, this inflammatory language has been the soundtrack accompanying the deterioration of democracy around Europe.[1] Brexit is emblematic of a generalized complacency about the strength of European democracies, and not just the product of the United Kingdom’s politics. It is also symptomatic of a new European fissiparousness that is likely to accelerate further fragmentation across the continent, also as a consequence of Brexit. Improving the health of its democracies will be critical if Europe wants to offer an alternative to the global disorder, power politics, and illiberalism that are taking hold.

A British Quagmire 

In 1941 George Orwell wrote: 

Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there. One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.[2]

As the Brexit process has been punctuated by Conservative Party leadership contests and an election in 2017 that failed to provide ways forward on addressing the 2016 referendum result, it worth asking how is it that the United Kingdom ended up in a cul-de-sac, seemingly unable to stay in the EU and unable to leave it. Has the inability to “deliver on Brexit,” in the words repeatedly pronounced by Theresa May when she was prime minister, a leadership failure? The United Kingdom’s uniquely ambiguous relationship with the rest of Europe has deep roots that cut across ideological, geographical, and political party beliefs. It provided the backdrop against which the Brexit drama has been staged, but it soon became something different. Challenged by the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), and now the Brexit Party, the question of EU membership has been a malignant growth inside the Conservative Party. May—a sacrificial lamb seen as unfit for purpose from the beginning—pivoted to the party’s Brexiteer right, while nodding to the moderates, but failed to pass the Withdrawal Agreement in parliament or to unite the Conservatives. Brexit morphed into a personality-driven drama, with the spotlight on lead actors making rather brief appearances, the merry-go-round of names moving in and out of cabinet positions, and a theatre of carnage with backstabbing and feuds among pseudo-rivals. For the Conservative Party and the government, the Brexit question became intertwined with leadership contests between characters of improbable standing and authoritativeness to deal with the greatest self-inflicted damage since Europe sleep-walked into the First World War.

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[1]  Elif Shafak (2019), ‘Déjà Vu in the UK: As a Turkish exile, I’ve seen this story before’, Politico, October 28, 2019.

[2] George Orwell (1941), ‘England Your England’.

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