Brexit and Constructivism

Image Source (Bankenverband)

Written by James Lo

In June 2016, UK held a referendum on the membership of EU and 52% of the respondents voted for leave. Two main schools of thought in constructivism, transactionalism and social constructivism, can help explain Brexit.

Transactionalism dictates that ‘inter-state and inter-society transactions’[1] will lead to the creation of a community in which the use of force will be unthinkable. Frequent and high quality cooperation will foster values of trust and cooperation, leading to the homogenisation of values and norms and emergence of a ‘collective identity’[2]. The EU is a prime example of this – where the states can use different agencies within the EU, as well as the Eurozone and free movement of people, to foster links and cooperate on different issues ranging from human rights to economy. Increased cooperation and interaction will also help foster an European identity. Transactionalists will therefore argue that enhanced cooperation will prevent the use of force and instead resolve issues within the EU through the use of EFTA and CJEU.

Social constructivists argue that social actors base their actions not only on ideal outcomes but also on shared social norms.[3] International organisations are seen to not only ‘reflect the values and norms that they are founded on’[4], but also ‘influence the members states that are participating’[5]. Indeed, constructivists believe that states act due to the logic of appropriateness and legitimacy in accordance to the norms within society – this is provided by the international organisations. International organisations will therefore be used to promote these values within the international sphere. An example of this will be European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights which provides funding to organisations which promote human rights and democracy in non-EU countries.

These approaches can help explain why Brexit occurred. Firstly, the European identity never manifested in UK. A survey by Clarke also showed that only 3.5% of respondents identified themselves as European.[6] This meant that the social constructivists’ hope of the emergence of a collective identity never materialised. It can thus be argued that this then led to a change in the perception of the “other” identity when issues regarding the EU – such as influx of immigrants and refugees – emerged. British citizens opted to prioritise their British identity and chose to discard their European identity.

Secondly, the shared norms and values never took root in Britain. This can be seen in the idea of sovereignty. UK operates on parliamentary sovereignty – where ‘there are no higher constitutional laws than parliamentary laws’[7] – whereas other member states operate on legal constitution – where countries are limited by constitution or international conventions. Therefore, the Brexit campaign was orientated on taking back control from Brussels and regaining UK’s sovereignty whereas other countries may be more comfortable with the shared/pooled sovereignty brought by the memberships of the EU. Another example on the incompatibility of the parliamentary sovereignty and legal constitutionalism is the reluctance of the UK to adopt the European Charter of fundamental rights. This is seen in two cases – since the adoption of the charter since 2009 by member states, UK attempted to secure, along with Poland, an opt out of the charter (Protocol 30). [8] The Charter will also not be incorporated into UK law as retained EU law after Brexit. [9] The problem of sovereignty existed throughout UK’s membership – one of the reasons why they opted out of the eurozone – but recent issues such as refugees and euro debt crisis may have brought it to the fore and made it one of the key issues that the leave campaign used. In short, EU norms and values were not successful in influencing the UK.

In essence, constructivism, especially the ideas of transactionalism and social constructivists can help explain why Brexit occurred. The EU identity which transactionalists argue will foster in the UK through continued interaction never emerged. The clash of the ideas and norms of the EU and the UK, the example here being sovereignty, was evident throughout the union and exposed due to recent events, leading to Brexit.

[1] Rittberger, V. 2011 p.26

[2] Ibid. p.27

[3] Ibid. p.28

[4] Ibid. p.29

[5] Ibid. p.29

[6] Clarke, H. 2017.

[7] Wind, M. 2017, p.12

[8] Bogdanor, V. 2016, p.14

[8] Ibid. p.18


Bogdanor, V. 2016. Europe and the Sovereignty of the People.

Clarke, H, Goodwin, M, Whiteley, P. 2017. Why Britain voted for Brexit: An individual level analysis of the 2016 referendum vote.

Rittberger, V. 2011. Theories of international organisations.

Wind, M. 2017. Why the British conception of sovereignty was the main reason for Brexit – and why the British ‘leave-vote’ may end up saving rather than undermining the EU.

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