Brexit, Nationalism and the Future of Europe Series: "Nationalism, European Integration and the Challenge of Brexit," by Brian Girvin

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H-Nationalism is pleased to publish here the first post of its 'Brexit, Nationalism and the Future of Europe' monthly series, which will discuss contributions on the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union and its impact on nationalism and the future of Europe in a multidisciplinary perspective.  Today's contribution, by Professor Brian Girvin (University of Glasgow), discusses the role of national identity in the context of the UK's decision to leave the EU and the tension between the objective of 'Ever Closer Union' and the desire to retain national soveriegnty in individual states'.

Nationalism, European Integration and the Challenge of Brexit

The objective of ‘Ever Closer Union’, an integrated supranational federal Europe, is based on post-nationalist if not anti-nationalist foundations. Many of those who promoted integration wanted to replace the often lethal competition between European states with arrangements that would reinforce cooperation and inter-dependency. In this objective they were remarkably successful and European co-operation transformed the environment in which diplomacy, policy making and statecraft takes place.[1] In 2012, the EU received the Nobel peace prize for its contribution to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. Most remarkably perhaps was the role played by the EU in securing membership of the union for the former communist states in central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War.[2]

However, the essentially political character of the European project has been consistently downplayed by promoters. European integration, Supranationalism, the objective of a United States of Europe was much more than a process of economic modernisation or a commitment to free trade. As European integration evolved from the European Economic Community (Treaty of Rome, 1957) to the European Community (Single European Act, 1987) to the European Union (Treaty of Maastricht, 1993), political considerations became more prominent and economic justification less so. The introduction of the Euro as a single currency, the enhanced role of the European Court of Justice, the Lisbon Treaty (signed 2007, in operation from 2009) reinforced the challenge to the state system and the sovereign basis of power in independent states.

Since 1991, European integration has become more political and divisive in many states. Prior to this a so-called ‘permissive consensus’ prevailed and pro-European political elites were generally able to pursue the integrationist agenda without political costs domestically.[3] Further integration was challenged in a number of cases. The Danish electorate rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, but ratified it when safeguards were agreed in 1993. The Irish electorate initially rejected both the Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) Treaties, though ratification did take place after major concessions were made. The Constitutional Treaty was rejected by both France and the Netherlands in 2005. Referendums are fairly rare on European issues, but when they take place opponents focus on the loss of sovereignty, the threat to national culture and the erosion of domestic political control over policy making.

This politicisation of the European project is a consequence of the substantive issues at stake. The debate is about whether individual states remain sovereign or pool that sovereignty in an integrated (and potentially federal) Europe. As a consequence various nationalist and populist movements have become more influential. Critics maintain that national identity is threatened by integration and that borders and sovereignty remain salient political objectives. Yet scepticism about Europe is not restricted to the right or populists. Public opinion has become more critical and sceptical about integration even in states where right wing politics is weak, such as Ireland. There is no longer a consensus on the future of Europe. Even French President Macron admitted that a referendum to exit the EU in France is likely to be successful.[4]

The vote to leave the EU by the United Kingdom electorate in June 2016 is the most recent, if also the most divisive and controversial example of how the European project has been politicised. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that the UK is leaving the EU but not Europe. This is making the political point that the UK is leaving a complex institutional relationship with entanglements and returning to traditional relations between individual states. This outcome and the institutional process that it initiated is widely but inaccurately called Brexit: meaning that Britain is seceding from the EU. In fact the process is more accurately described as UKexit.

It is the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland that is leaving the European Union in 2019, but the use of Brexit to describe the process marginalises an important region within the Union and questions the continuing support for the Union within the Conservative Party.[5] It has been said that ‘United Kingdom Unionism is dead, except in Northern Ireland’ and the use of Brexit provides additional support for this view.[6] The use of Brexit ignores the complex nature of the United Kingdom and in particular the national basis of the four main regions within the state. Ironically, while Brexit has enhanced a certain version of nationalism in England, it has also undermined the Conservative commitment to Unionism across the state. The commitment to Britishness and the Union has been replaced by much closer identification with the individual nationalities that compose the UK.

British politics has been transformed by the decision to leave the EU. The most direct impact has been on the Conservative Party, though all parties have been affected by the referendum and its outcome. For over forty years Europe has divided the Conservative Party and the issue has been more important for its MPs and electorate than for Labour. The political success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) forced the issue for the Conservatives, as UKIP occupied political ground that had been the monopoly of the Conservatives between 1973 and 2010. The referendum result not only led to the resignation of David Cameron, it also overturned the liberal opening to the centre that he had promoted.

Nevertheless, Cameron shared the Euroscepticism that prevailed in his party when he became leader. His decision to re-negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU in 2015 was a consequence of a manifesto commitment at the general election but reflected the ‘neo-Thatcherite Euroscepticism’ consensus identified by Richard Hayton.[7] Cameron’s failure and the election of Theresa May as Prime Minister confirmed the victory of the nationalist right within the party. [8] May’s party conference speech in October 2016 reflected this shift and was widely welcomed within the party. Moreover, under her leadership there has been a renewed emphasis on national symbols. One example is the decision to return to the dark blue passport and discard the burgundy EU style one. May defended this move on the grounds that ‘The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud nation’.[9]

The referendum focuses attention on the differential attitudes towards leaving the EU among the regions of the UK. The UK wide vote to leave was 51.9% on a 72% turnout. However, in Scotland 62% voted to remain as did 55.8% in Northern Ireland. In England the vote to leave was 53.4%, while in Wales it was 52.5%. Closer examination of the vote discloses the significant impact of national identity on voting patterns. The most interesting feature of this appears in Northern Ireland. The vote to remain was 55.8%, yet beneath this is a pattern that reflects the ethno-religious divide in the region. Some 85% of Catholics voted to remain, while 60% of Protestants voted to leave. Among those who describe themselves as Unionists the leave vote was 66%, whereas just 12% of nationalists choose to support leave. Among those who describe themselves as Irish 87% voted to remain while those who described themselves as British or Ulster voted to leave (63% and 70% respectively). There are fears that these divisions will lead to a return to confrontation if not violence in the event of a hard border between that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.[10]

Nor are these patterns restricted to Northern Ireland. In Scotland those who choose a British identity were more likely to vote to leave, though a majority voted to remain. Those who choose a Scottish identity were most likely to support remain. Approximately a third of those who identified with the SNP voted to leave despite the party commitment to independence in Europe. Moreover, despite the vote to remain, there is considerable Euroscepticism in Scotland with some 25% in favour of leaving the EU and a significant 42% wanting a reduction in powers of the EU. Support for the SNP among leave voters also dropped by about a fifth between 2015 and 2017.[11]

If a British identity in Northern Ireland or Scotland makes an individual more likely to vote to leave the EU, the opposite is the case in England. Two thirds of those who identify primarily as British voted to remain in the EU. By way of contrast, those who identify as English not British or More English than British overwhelmingly voted leave (79% and 66% respectively). Those who are equally English and British are only marginally in favour of leaving. When voting for the Conservative Party is factored in, it increases the likelihood of British identifiers voting leave, but has no discernible effect on English identifiers. A majority of those voting leave support the reintroduction of the death penalty and a return to the blue passport. Some 48% want imperial measures reintroduced while 42% want to see corporal punishment reintroduced to schools.

Public opinion remains polarised on the issue. An ICM poll in December 2017 asked how respondents would vote if there was another referendum on membership of the EU.  46% would vote to remain and 43% would vote to leave, with 5% undecided of not knowing how they would vote. Looking at polling from June 2016 to December 2017 there has been a slight move to remain but little overall movement one way or the other. Moreover, there is little support for another referendum. Neither the leadership of the Labour Party or the Conservative Party support such a move.

In Scotland opinion remains much more divided than the vote on the referendum suggests. When asked if they would support independence if that allowed Scotland to remain in the EU, 39% supported this option. Alternatively 40% would vote for Scotland to remain in the UK and leave the EU. The UK (and Britain in particular) remains strongly Eurosceptic. Some 10% support the idea of a United States of Europe, while 43% were opposed. In a comparative context this is out of step with both Germany and France, but much closer to the Nordic region where opposition to this idea is even stronger than in Britain.[12]

What does the UK decision tell us about nationalism and the future of Europe? In an influential article published in 1966 Stanley Hoffmann asked if the nation-state in Europe was obsolete or obstinate. He regretfully concluded that the nation-state retained its capacity to attract loyalty and remained a legitimate political entity.[13] Much the same conclusion can be drawn fifty years later. The resilience of the nation-state, nationalism and national identity has been much in evidence in the UK and provided the emotive appeal for the leave campaign.

The Conservative government has emphasised the symbols of the nation-state and sovereignty since the vote to leave. The current negotiations with the EU27 is widely seen as a conflict between ‘them and us’; a classic example of nationalism. Those opposing the government strategy are often portrayed as unpatriotic and indeed anti-democratic. The referendum result has also enhanced the importance of national identity within the individual regions/nations of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is arguable that the vote reflects the eclipse of British identity within the state and the primacy of sub-state national identity as the primary identity for most people. Underestimating the significance of nationalism has been a long standing feature of liberal pro-European opinion.

For the EU, the UK decision is both a challenge and a warning. The challenge is to renegotiate future relations with a former member without making it easier for other states to leave in the future. The warning is that the EU has little legitimacy among the people of Europe and its future remains in question. There is little appetite for further integration among the member states and little support for ‘more Europe’ which optimists suggest is the answer to the crisis. The primary identity of most Europeans is with the existing nation or state; only 2% of European citizens see themselves as exclusively European. The weakness of the European Union prevents it from deepening the integration process. It cannot coerce Europeans into a single state, as France successfully did between the sixteenth and nineteenth century. Nor has it the thick web of historical associations, cultural legacies or ethnic identity that secures the legitimacy of existing states and nations.

Most importantly, as Anthony Smith has argued, ‘There is no European analogue to Bastille or Armistice Day, no European ceremony for the fallen in battle, no European shrine of kings or saints. When it comes to the ritual and ceremony of collective identification, there is no European equivalent of national or religious community’. These symbols and ceremonies remain grounded in state or national histories and they retain a powerful emotional attraction that the EU or Europe simply cannot compete with. Indeed, it is possible that a process of de-Europeanisation and re-nationalisation is now underway of which the UK decision to leave is just one reflection.[14]

[1] Wolfram Kaiser, Christian Democracy and the Origins of European Union (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Linda Rossi, ‘Cracks in a Façade of Unity: The French and Italian Christian Democrats and the Launch of the European Integration Process, 1945-1957’ in Lucian N. Leustean and John T. S. Madeley (Eds.), Religion, Politics and Law in the European Union (London: Routledge, 2010), 93-108

[2] More critical interpretations can be found in Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (London: Penguin, 1997); Alan S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State (London: Routledge, 1994).

[3] It should be recalled that General Charles de Gaulle successfully constrained the integrationist movement of the EEC in 1966 during the ‘empty chair crisis’.

[5] The most comprehensive discussion available of the decision to leave restricts its analysis to Britain, reinforcing this partial view, Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley, Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

[6] Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, State of the Union: Unionism and the Alternatives in the United Kingdom since 1707 (Oxford University Press, 2005), v, 1.

[7] Richard Hayton, Reconstructing Conservatism? The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997-2010 (Manchester University Press, 2012), 61-80; 139-47

[8] Philip Lynch, The Politics of Nationhood: Sovereignty, Britishness and Conservative Politics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 22-47; 66-102

[9] Financial Times 23-24 December 2017

[10] John Garry, ‘The EU referendum vote in Northern Ireland’ available at,728121,en.pdf It should be noted that the Democratic Unionist Party supported leaving the EU and currently supports the minority Conservative government at Westminster.

[11] John Curtice, ‘The SNP’s electoral dilemma has been misdiagnosed’, Prospect October 9, 2017; ‘From Indyref1 to Indyref2?, available at

[12] The data can be found at What the UK Thinks website -

[13] Stanley Hoffmann, ‘Obstinate or Obsolete? The Fate of the Nation-State and the Case of Western Europe’ Daedalus 95: 3 (1966), 862-916

[14] Anthony D. Smith, ‘National Identity and the Idea of European Unity’ International Affairs 68: 1 (1992), 55-76; Bo Ståth, ‘Identity and social solidarity: an ignored connection. A historical perspective on the state of Europe and its nations’ Nations and Nationalism 23: 2 (2017), 227-47

Dear All,

Many thanks to Dr. Girvin for this excellent opening post of our new Brexit series. It is particularly interesting to read it alongside our roughly simultaneous series on the Left and Nationalism. I'm excited to see future posts and hear any reflections from our subscribers. 

Kind Regards, 

David Prior
Advisory Board Member, H-Nationalism
Assistant Professor of History, University of New Mexico