A World After Brexit?

Michelle Everson*

Brexit has befallen us. The world is a very different place, especially on the streets of London, where the sense of disbelief is palpable, and the insecurity (even fear) is tangible, as our so recently lived-dream of non-national, culturally-disregarding, globally-cosmopolitan community finds itself under a very present threat. Yet, life goes on and, barring any further surprises, the academic world must begin to deal with the consequences of Brexit, both with regard to retrospective explanation, and with a view to opening up perspectives for the world to come.

Citizenship in Movement

“[I]t would be neither satisfactory nor true to the development of the case law to reduce freedom of movement to a mere standard of promotion of trade between member states. It is important that the freedoms of movement fit into the broader framework of the objectives of the internal market and European citizenship. At present, freedoms of movement must be understood to be one of the essential elements of the ‘fundamental status of nationals of the member states’. They represent the cross-border dimension of the economic and social status conferred on European citizens.”

[Opinion of AG Poiares Maduro in Cases C-158 & 159/04, Alfa Vita Vassilopoulos AE v Greece, 2006 E.C.R. I-8135, paragraph 192.]

In my world of (economic and constitutional) European Law, it has long been an unthinking commonplace that the legal freedoms of the Single Market coalesce seamlessly with and reinforce the character of the individual living across the space of Europe, as a European Citizen; a citizen who is made so, by virtue of their movement within, or as an ancillary to the European market. This blind collapse of the civic and social into the economic is, nevertheless, a far more incendiary one than the dry formulations of an Advocate General of the European Court of Justice might anticipate.

Writing in the European Law Review in 2004, Hans Lindahl sought to remind European lawyers of the continuing currency of boundaries and barriers to movement in notions of exclusionary belonging, of the on-going relevance of Hannah Arendt’s concept of “spatiality”. Investigating the consequences of an emergent European “securitisation” discourse, Lindahl noted that spatiality is:

“[N]ot merely a geographical term. It relates not so much, and not primarily, to a piece of land as to the space between individuals in a group whose members are bound to, and at the same time separated and protected from each other by all kinds of relationships, based on a common language, religion, a common history, customs, and laws.”

 For all of its roots in a putative act of post-national liberal constitution, the old European continent was and is still prey to pre-political expressions of belonging; a communitarian impulse, then silently evinced in the binary distinction between those who were and those who were not “legally-resident” within the European space, and now explicitly re-asserted within myriad acts of individual brutality in the holding camps of Turkey and of Greece – our new EU colonial “protectorate”. Neither Libyans, Ghanaians, Congolese nor Pakistanis, it seems, may simply seek their citizenship within the movements of the European market.

At its basest level, this form of European spatiality played a very clear part in the Brexit vote. The forty-year-long coup d’état perpetrated upon the British State by successive tabloid owners, having never been shy to disseminate misrepresentations about the workings of the EU, similarly did not shrink from making its own racist capital out of graphic pictures of this most explicit of EU failures: Doktor Goebbels himself could not have done a better job of presenting people – people, undone and hurt by European borders – as de-humanised threats to Madge in Margate. At an altogether very different level, however, the fault, not only for Brexit, but also for the continuing anguish of the dispossessed of Athens, Madrid and Rome, lies in the longstanding failure of the EU and Europeans – including, vitally, Europeans of the left – to come to terms with, or even to address, the further paradoxes and contradictions of spatiality within our internal European outlook. In other words, when distilled down into a constitutional-political status of citizenship – a citizenship that secures the civic, political and social status of individuals within their communities – the notion of spatiality attains a Janus-like character; a character of communitarian inclusion that is naturally blind to the extraneous other, but, simultaneously, is also careless of the claims to universal justice made by those whose identities are ignored within particularist narratives of spatial belonging.

 “For many, complaints about foreign workers coming here and taking their jobs are disturbingly reminiscent of the atmosphere whipped up in Britain’s cities during the 1960s and 1970s, when the backlash against Commonwealth immigration was reflected both in the ballot box – in support for extreme right-wing parties – and, in many cases, in street violence.” [The Times, Editorial Comment]

How quickly the world changes: in 2009, when I sought to support the protest of the workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery (“British jobs for British workers”), explaining to the media that European law (Posted Workers Directive and Agency Directive) not only allowed workers to be brought into the UK in circumvention of the conditions of legally-established collective-bargaining agreements, but might also be used to prevent UK-resident workers from applying for their own jobs, I was met with a wave of incomprehension amongst my liberal and left-leaning colleagues: “surely, these protestors are only xenophobes?” At the same time, I found myself face-to-face with the ugliest aspects of tabloid coup d’état, as my point was mobilised against all movement of peoples. Finally, I was also marginalised as a curiosity by a mainstream broadsheet media within its unthinking correlation of liberal-cultural advance with global economic progress.

Today, the workers of Lindsey will no doubt be being celebrated by some as Brexit heroes; the vanguard of the workers’ movement which, their political marginalisation as voiceless xenophobes notwithstanding, managed subsequently to overthrow the arrogant economic dirigisme of European and UK governing élites. By contrast, for me, such workers never were, and are not now, heroes (or villains). They are merely people who are trying their best to establish a measure of social justice for themselves within the only framework available to them: a spatially-delineated paradigm of (nationalised) citizenship, which, in its operation, is inevitably exclusionary, not only of the economic justice demands of the foreign “other” workers who are forced to compete themselves to parity (i.e., is exclusionary-xenophobic), but also of the claims for recognition made by universal identities which have been perennially excluded within their own national space (i.e., exclusionary-reactionary).

Hannah Arendt’s ambivalence towards her own paradigm of spatiality, her hostility to her own recognition that an effective citizenship of (economic and social) security is founded within a bounded right to have rights still pertains; and has just found its most potently-upsetting expression in the vote of the old Labour heartlands for Brexit, as well as in the chasm in understanding that has opened up between economically-dispossessed England and cosmopolitan London. Vote and chasm were eminently foreseeable and foreseen, both for the UK and within the wider EU setting. They were foreseen, first, as economic sociologists, such as Neil Fligstein, long-ago noted the growing cross-continent hostility of a working class to the European project to be found in Eurobarometer data, and further recalled the guiding cynicism of emergent citizenships in his paraphrasing of Karl Deutsch’s dictum that:

 “[T]he historical trick to the rise of a nation state will be to find a horizontal solidarity for the existing [class] stratification and a rationale that using a state apparatus to protect the nation makes sense.” (emphasis added) (2008: 130).

 Where, in Europe, a propertied class enjoys the greater part of the benefits of European Union, and labour competition, rather than solidaristic rapport, is made the norm between European workers– between those who move and those who do not – class stratifications can never make sense, let alone act as a focal point for the building of European identity rationales. Europe has misplaced its own historical trick, cannot persuade its population that its “state” apparatus makes sense.

Vote and schism, however, were also foreseeable, in particular, as behaviouralist sociologists, such as Adrian Favell, expressed their own frustration with the misplaced rhetorical assertion of the quest for a deep concept of European citizenship, and hinted instead at the liberating perspectives lying far beyond the “Marshallian triptych” of industrial citizenship; a citizenship, which, in its deification of the historic emergence of class-based civic, political, and social rights, can also be seen as entrenching outmoded and oppressive constructs of social organisation. And this, to the exact degree that individuals have, by contrast, used European rights or “opportunities” to:

“[D]o new things across national borders; go shopping for cheaper petrol or wine; buy cottages in charming rustic villages; look for work in a foreign cosmopolitan city; take holidays in new destinations, move to retire in the sun, buy cheaper airline tickets; plan international rail travel; join cross-national associations between twinned towns; use a common currency without having 5% stolen by the bank – and a thousand other actions facilitated by the free movement accords.”

Favell’s formulations are facetious, but the underlying point is deadly earnest: the ossification of historically-conditioned stratifications within bounded societies, governed by their own rousing, class-based narratives of citizenship evolution, have similarly obscured a myriad of social cleavages founded, for example, in gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and have played their own part in retarding material claims for justice that are not expressed within traditional national narratives of belonging and cohesion (see, only, Dahrendorf 2008). The spatially-blind, market-facilitated ability to engage in novel or seemingly new acts – for example, the explicit sexualisation of consumption within the establishment of a highly visible pink lifestyle (Mort 1996) – might, by the same token, be viewed as establishing potential for a vital social evolution that is equally blind to national difference.

The core underlying problem is thus not simply one, or at all one that cosmopolitan London or Brussels have been wholly deaf to social justice demands asserted against dominantly-abusive economic forces: the notion of “Social Europe”, after all, is firmly entrenched in European discourse. Rather, within a citizenship in movement, a disjunction has opened up, and an antagonism has been created between a social justice of economic security that is still bounded within (national and European) spatiality, and a citizenship in movement, which possesses its own potential for an evolutionary justice of opportunity.

 Global Weimar: Responding with Economic Modesty?

 If the last weeks have taught us anything, it must be that the future is uncertain. Yet, I cannot but help but intuit that dispossessed England will be the greatest loser following Brexit. Perhaps the best case scenario for a rump nation (I assume the exit of Scotland, and perhaps even Northern Ireland from the Union) is one of a return of an English-Welsh unit of national organisation to its Elizabethan role of pirate nation, striking fast here and there, and stealing away the spoils of global trade, before their owners have realised that they have gone. Within a new complex of bilateral trade agreements, residual European trade relations and WTO participation, London will most likely survive as a powerful, but far sadder, centre of economic power. However, the regions of England that still bear the scars of the economic brutality of the Thatcher years, that suffered disregard during pre-financial-crisis years of prosperity, and that bore the brunt of austerity, are also the most likely to be (still) exposed to the equally-alienating imposition of conditions conducive to attracting Foreign Direct Investment: de-unionisation, zero hour contracts, privatised pensions and all the abusive paraphernalia of unrestrained global capital: Denkich an England in der Nacht, dann bin um den Schlafgebracht.

Yet, by the same token, Brexit is about far more than British exit from the European Union, the break-up of the Kingdom Formerly Known as United (KFKU) or, indeed, of comparable centrifugal forces within the EU itself. Europeanisation only intensifies globalisation, and Brexit is perhaps only the first explosive expression of the unbearable cultural, social and political tensions that have been created during the aggressive wave of capital-driven economic liberalisation that established itself following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Global Weimar: in less than 30 years, globalisation (together with technology) has transformed the world, opening up unparalleled opportunities for the formulation of new cultural identities, for the re-definition of novel demands for justice (in opportunity), and for the assertion of never-before-heard voices outside the conventional political realm. Yet, just as in Weimar, pluralism, self-expression and opportunity lack the cynicism of “the historical trick”, are inimical to the dirigisme of traditional citizenship paradigms, which sought to persuade their constituents that stratification – even of the dispossessed – made sense.

In this global setting, we are confronted with the task of managing pluralism, of overcoming a new cleavage within the citizenship status of individuals throughout the globe; a potentially explosive cleavage of opportunity versus security (and, remembering Greece, of creditors versus debtors). This is by no means an easy task, either at a theoretical or at a pragmatic level. Nevertheless, as we struggle finally to address and to overcome the paradoxes inherent to a European outlook of spatiality, we can buy ourselves time – for example, to refine our understanding of the means in which class and identity intersect – within a global economic system that threatens constantly to amplify the contradictions within our social organisation to their breaking-points. With its efficiency lodestone, its emphasis on the asocial calculations of the rational actor, and its unbridled pursuit of growth, modern economics has established a totalitarianism of purpose that is deaf to all social opinion that cannot be expressed within its parameters: There Is No Alternative (TINA). But, alternatives do exist, and not merely do so in the very different outlooks of a global south, or in the “basket-weaving” dreams of alternative economic thinkers. Capitalism and markets existed prior to the birth of modern economics, functioned without the guiding star of efficiency and were historically able not only to accommodate, but also to make opportunities out of integrated national economic thinking. Certainly, without efficiency, overall growth and wealth may falter. However, if Brexit has its positive side (though I struggle to find one), it must surely be that a large number of people – and not simply the dispossessed – were prepared, in a world founded within consumerism, to vote to be poorer.


Dahrendorf, R. (2008): “Citizenship and Social Class”, in: idem, The Modern Social Conflict: the Politics of Liberty, (New York: Transaction Publishers).

Favell, A. (2010): “European Citizenship in three Eurocities: A Sociological Approach to the European Union”, 30 PolitiqueEuropéenne, 187-224.

Favell, A. (2013): “The Changing Face of ‘Integration’ in a Mobile Europe”, in: Council For European Studies Newsletter, June 2013.

Fligstein, N. (2008): Euro-clash: The EU, European Identity and the Future of Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Foucault, M. (2008): Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79, (London: Palgrave MacMillan).

Lindahl, H. (2004): “Finding a Place for Freedom, Security and Justice: The European Union’s Claim to Territorial Unity”, 29 European Law Review, 461.

Mort, F.C. (1996): Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in Late-Twentieth Century Britain, (Routledge: London).

* 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 at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2871428). 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.

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