To what extent does Brexit fatally damage Neo-functionalism as a credible theory of European Integration?

To what extent does Brexit fatally damage Neo-functionalism as a credible theory of European Integration?

CREDIT PHOTO: @The NewYorker (22/08/2018)

Introduction :

“Take Back Control” was the motto chosen by the “Leave” campaign for the referendum of 23th June 2016 in the United Kingdom (UK) : according to the result of the vote, it conveys several ideas : on one hand, the weight of the European Union (EU) became too heavy to bear for the sovereignty of the State; on the other hand, this incentives displays how unpopular the Supranational stage remains. The Brexit (literally British Exit), as it “refers to the possibility of Britain withdrawal from the European Union” (The Economic Times, 2018), inevitably affected the standing of the neo-functionalist theory: indeed, what appears like a deliberate sovereign choice don’t match with the assumption that “political integration is the process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties expectations and political activities toward a new center whose institution possess or demand jurisdiction over the pre-existing national states. The end result […] is a new political community, superimposed over the pre-existing ones »(HAAS, 1958). Thus, victory of the “Leave” during the referendum of June 23th unsettled the whole Union as it was neither expected by any member state nor wished by the United Kingdom government. Evidently, it eroded the Neo-functionalist account as it seemed to refuse the assumption of a European Integration (EI) driven by transnational elites instead of governments’ wills. In consequence, the aim of this essay is to determine if Brexit jeopardizes the neo-functionalist theory of European Integration. Therefore, it will first examine UK’s decision as a sovereign choice opposite to the theory’s characteristics; next it will show how such an endeavor stems from an historical standing. Finally, it will demonstrate how UK’s withdrawal highlights the effectiveness and coercion of the Supranational governance over member-states. In other words, this essay arises the question whether the Brexit discredits the Neo-functionalist current or if in practice it enhances its views. It considers how UK’s withdrawal has undermined the credibility of the EI but in depth it will seek to expose how the implications of the exit process underscore Neo-functionalism as a still relevant theory. By discussing the underlying consequences of Brexit toward the proponents of a Union led and conditionated by the Supranational stage, major issues will emerge: expression of sovereignty as the resurgence of Neo-functionalism/Intergovernmentalism debate, UK’s exceptionalism or coercive power of the EU.

Brexit: the resumption of a fierce theoretical argument

First, leaving the EU highlights state sovereignty superseding the Supranational dynamics of integration and control: it expresses a dissension among a supposed united political body that sheds light upon national governments as last decision-makers. In fact, the Brexit embodies a sovereign will to withdraw to protect one’s interests. It follows that this exit process entails some arguments opposite to the neo-functionalist account. To begin with, the existence itself of the article 50 TFEU allows the UK to unilaterally withdraw from the European Union and underscores how states have shaped the Union in order to serve their interests: in fact, not only it is a great step toward more liberties and a wider scope of actions inside the EU, it is also the symbol of the states’ mastery of their political environment. Furthermore, it underlines the possibility to escape from the supranational authority once for all by claiming the sovereign dimension of this choice so as the EU can only approve in order to maintain its legitimacy. Indeed, prompting the revision in such a configuration would only harm the credibility of the EU. Alternatively, one must consider that if article 50 TFEU gives the opportunity to cancel one’s membership under the mere will of the state, it must not overshadow the fact that the process is bound by EU legislation and as we’ll discuss it later approval of different European institutions to deliberate the conditions of withdrawal. In addition, contesting through negotiations is still open informally for the EU thanks to its individual states’ behavior as independent agent; the case of French President Macron bargaining in the late 2018 for keeping the same advantages with UK than under the EU organization underpins this idea.

In addition, opponents of neo-functionalism would also argue that referendum unsettles the principle of a paramount European adjudicator as it expresses the popular opinion. Indeed, through this kind of voting, people not just the elites are asked to confess their viewpoint and decide for their common destiny. In our case, it is particularly relevant as it emphasizes the failure to build a feeling of European belonging strong enough to resist crisis and uphold solidarity and unity. To that extent, it undermines the processes of elites socialization and Europeanisation stated by the neo-functionalist : the former deals with the shift through interactions and common struggles against shared problems of a national loyalty to an European one while the latter exposes that the more the integration and the development of interdependence, the more likely interest groups will seek their intervention in policy areas as an alternative channel of problem-solving authority. The point to expose then is that both forges a European identity spread to all its members, but one can observe that in practice Brexit conveys that EU failed to expand this sentiment to the British people.

Beyond the new crisis it has generated and that challenge the EU – facing the probable rise of Euroscepticism and the emergence of more “secessionist movements” – Brexit has also contributed to unearth the classical debate between neo-functionalism and Intergovernmentalism, giving the latter an apparent example of its efficiency over the former one. In fact, this discussion introduces once again the concept of spill-back (HAAS, 1968) or disintegration (SCHMITTER, 2004) as a new relevant analysis of European Integration and reverse of neo-functionalist claims. Nevertheless, the next question one should wonder is if such a decision is thought as a reconquest of one’s sovereignty or if it was framed as another attempt to express one’s exceptionalism by opposing one’s will against an entity that seems to suffocate for its benefit the states’ control of their own political fate.

Brexit : the most recent example of British Exceptionalism ?

Consequently, the next step of this analysis supposes to examine the Brexit as a failed expression of a British historical standing toward its relationships with the EU. In their common history, there has always been a conflictual link between the Union and its “awkward partner” (GEORGE, 1999). In view of this, UK’s tendency to contest and defy EU authority is salient through two interrelated reasons. On one hand, this behavior enabled the UK to defend its exceptionalism and express its own personal political identity: Cini and Perez-Solorzano Borragan (2016) mentioned that British involvement portrayed its island mentality, its exceptionalism, Euroscepticism and consideration as a Great Power. According to this “personality”, it justified opt-outs in several areas ruled by the European Treaties (non-participation in Schengen after Amsterdam, chapter III of economic and monetary union, Social chapter for the rights of Workers … etc.). On the other hand, this exceptionalism orientated the political path adopted by the EU and participated to shape its current form. Indeed, McGowan and Phinnemore (2017) enumerate every contribution made, from the European Regional development Fund in the 1970’s to the Single Market in the 1980’s ending with its position of advocate of enlargement in 90’s and 2000’s. Cini (2016) furthers this approach by declaring the UK as an “Europeanised State” (p. 1). Even defining the exact terms of the withdrawal has became a major display of this British exceptionalism : consecutive Prime Ministers have resigned because they were unable to transcend this stalemate and Boris Johnson, the current one, must face similar resistances as parliamentary confrontations that led to trigger anticipated elections.

In the meanwhile, this exceptionalism tempers the Brexit as an intergovernmentalist proof of member-states supremacy over supranational stage by shedding light upon withdrawal as a result of a failed attempt to contest once again the European jurisdiction. In this view, it explains it in two different overlapping ways. Trying to unsettle the Union in order to obtain its claims – a new special settlement whose criteria are expressed in the Bloomberg Speech of January 2013 – the government gambled the “Remain” during a referendum triggered as a mean of pressure for their bargaining. Unfortunately, it helped to reach a compromise but too late to avoid the tenure of the referendum and the “Leave” side to exploit the shortcomings of the negotiated new deal. Such a miscalculated result discloses more a historical pattern adopted by the UK to disclaim its submission under a higher authority than a real attempt to endanger the European Integration. It is more obvious when is taken into consideration the societal political divide about British interests, highlighted by Gamble (2012) referring to the divisions and tensions within the Conservatist Party that almost launched in 2011 a new referendum about EU membership. It appears even more clearly when it is put into perspective with the 3rd September 2019 parliamentary session where the current Prime Minister has lost its majority when one deputy, Phillip Lee, expressed its dissent by joining the opposition in the middle of the talks. Furthermore, under the account of Exceptionalism, Boris Johnson’s determination to “get Brexit done” might be unveiled as a desperate attempt to restore the credibility of the whole British political class after the referendum debacle.

Far from a victory “for the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people” claimed by N. Farage (UKIP’s leader), the Brexit can be regarded as a failure to acknowledge the limits of exceptionalism as a mean of contestation and targeting EU as the scapegoat of every illness. Not only, it has caused several issues for UK’s future (loss of its advantages, new status to discuss, public opinion torn apart, regional disagreements, Irish border issue, … etc) but it has highlighted too how unwilling is the government and its population to accomplish the withdrawal: for instance, the Google’s research trend “ What is the EU” after the result of the voting underpins what has been already known as the “Regrexit”. To mention a more recent example, one only has to examine the actual state of progress for the procedure: after more than 3 years of bargaining, the UK remains stuck within the EU because its government and its people have proven themselves unable to reach a mutual and consensual agreement with Brussels. However, such a reaction and frustrated feeling underline how effective and useful was the EU membership and thus it recognizes somehow the persistent credibility of the Neo-functionalism, at least partially.

Brexit : a proof of the Supranational entrenchment

Finally, one might assert that according to the neo-functionalist account, UK’s withdrawal is nothing but an affordable setback for the supranational regulation: what eventually the Brexit implies is not only the successful expression of the sovereignty, but it exposes how resilient and integrated is the EU nationally because of, notably, the underlying effects of the Spillover (HAAS, 1958). As we will see, several elements underpin the entrenchment of Neo-functionalism as an explanatory theory of nowadays EU logics. First, the UK’s policies look completely conform with the EU norms which entails how the country has been swept by the logic of Spillover by entering the Union: as previously discussed, the EU is a “Europeanized State” (CINI, 2016) and to this extent, its policy-making process is framed by and applies the Supranational norms in adequacy with the other member-states. Furthermore, the expressed regrets at least expose the application of the Europeanisation theory: “trapped” in the European venture, interest groups realized that maybe outside of the EU their interests could be less achieved. According to Sergento Freitas (2017), this stalemate would be corrected afterwards as in a neo-functionalist thinking UK will realize its mistakes and will seek for fulfilling the European ideal of political and economic unity again. If one may consider this standing inconsistent according to UK exceptionalism, the reality attests this viewpoint : not only the loss of its majority in the Parliament but also the multiple efforts outlined by the opposition forces attest the awareness that maybe Brexit was not the solution. For instance, the law preventing a withdrawal with no-deal, adopted on the 4th September 2019, stresses this nascent mindset and underscores how regretful of Brexit’s consequences on their national interests political elite is. Contrastingly, Schmitter (2004) argues that this expression of disintegration could have been predicted by using the Neo-Functionalism as a framework to figure out the conditions favoring or constraining this process.

Anyway, the Brexit shed light upon the fact that even if the states have their words to say about the conduct of EU evolution, this supranational entity keeps control over the any process linked to the European (Dis)-integration. Indeed, in their opposition and struggle to negotiate their future relationship, UK appears unprepared and must confront a united front of 27 member-states firmly ready to avoid any privilege. Among every request issued to device a deal framing new relations outside the EU, Member-States dismissed everything except a special status for the Northern Ireland, on behalf of peace preservation. This point depicts how the theory of elite socialization remains significant: while many would have expected a dismantlement of the Union, elites and governments stuck together in order to face the crisis triggered by one of their own because they have learnt to work for their common sake. Moreover, one of the main assumptions of Intergovernmentalism get refuted: European Institutions are not the tool of the states as UK look unable to instrumentalize them to avoid the hard standing of EU against a specific relationship outside the EU. As a matter of fact, both sides had to undergo rough and lasting negotiations to reach, two times so far, an agreement only concerned with peacekeeping between the two Irelands. Ultimately, the withdrawal itself reflects how EU regulates its affairs. In fact, its coercive control is embodied by its mandatory notification for its approval and then the Withdrawal Agreement, endorsed on 19th March 2018 and still effective despite the election of new MEPs in 2019, constraining UK to be bound to its former obligations and benefits inside the EU while losing every voting right and decision-making power. Furthermore, no new trade agreement could go into force as long as the transition phase is not ended. Thus, this serious handicap underpins Cini’s quote: “once article 50 is triggered, the balance of power is placed firmly with the EU” (2016).

Conclusion :

To summarize, this article has shown how sovereignty could be employed to assert the decay of neo-functionalism in the specific case of Brexit. Nevertheless, beyond appearances, this setback towards EU can be explained through the particular relation between UK and EU while the negotiation process itself stands like a bulwark against state’s will to leave effectively as a sudden. Thus, this essay provides the purposes to reconsider Brexit as an historical example that doesn’t depend only on the state’s behavior but also on the European Union approval : indeed, if UK was alone to decide its withdrawal, it mainly laid on the European framework to be effective and the logics of spillover produced an interdependence and common policy-making that has been handicapping the definitive departure from the Union. Thus, what we have witnessed is that intergovernmentalism and neo-functionalism are nowadays overlapped and that these two logical drives have finally collided


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