Brexit exceptionalism

19th April 2019

One common accusation in the debates about Brexit is that of “exceptionalism”.

This often happens when there is a sense that the person you (think you) disagree with is asserting something arrogant or special about the UK or Great Britain or England.

“That is British [or English] exceptionalism,” will come the charge, fairly or unfairly.

But for those of us caught up in the dramatics of Brexit, and who are seeking to understand and explain it, there is another potential peril.

Brexit exceptionalism.

This is not a surprise: as Brexit unfolds in all its spectacular messiness, it is natural to assume it is unique.

And there are certainly parts of it which are novel.

But as a fascinating post at the OUP sets out, however, there are many examples of states leaving intergovernmental organisations and with serious consequences.

Departures are not unusual, and nor are painful departures with profound consequences.

Over time, commentators and historians will no doubt describe Brexit in contexts and perspectives which will counter our contemporaneous view that this is all about us.


The EU does have special qualities: it is not just an intergovernmental organisation.

The EU provides for a new legal order which provides rights and obligations which are “vertical” and so attach themselves on individuals and companies within the member states.

The member state, however, retains ultimate sovereignty and also autonomy in many areas of law and policy.

There is no other international organisation which does this: the nearest analogue would probably be states fully within a federal system (for example, the USA or Germany).

A state seeking to depart such a new legal order will necessarily have unprecedented legal and other problems.

That is because the international organisation being quitted will itself have been unprecedented.

And so Brexit is, to a significant extent, exceptional.

The challenge for commentators and historians will be to work out what can be explained (away) by context and perspective, and to describe and account for what about this mess has never been seen before.


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8 thoughts on “Brexit exceptionalism”

  1. Jure Vidmar recently speculated if it may not be most accurate to think of Brexit as a „functional secession“. The reasons you give here are among his as well. If this is right, Brexit would not be exceptional at all.

    Not thinking about Brexit as a secession when it is may also explain – in my view – why its complexity was so easily underestimated.

  2. It’s interesting to conceptualise Brexit as a secession. There has been a running tension throughout the process – seen as early as the debates on the referendum Bill – between the understanding of withdrawal as a constitutional change or as purely an exercise of foreign affairs powers. This was manifested in the Miller case, of course, in the question of whether the power to trigger Article 50 lay within the foreign affairs prerogative or rather required statutory authorisation (for the Miller majority, it was the constitutional magnitude of the change that meant that statute was required). But we’ve also seen the same tension in relation to the devolution dimension of Brexit – between a characterisation of Brexit as a matter of international relations, therefore reserved exclusively to the UK level, or rather as a constitutional change with fundamental and not merely consequential implications for the devolved institutions.

    More profoundly, that speaks to a tension in the nature of the EU itself and the UK’s relationship with it – as a purely intergovernmental organisation or as a supra-national one, in a quasi-federal relationship with its member states. The willingness to acknowledge the constitutional implications of EU membership (particularly in relation to its impact on parliamentary sovereignty) tends to wax and wane as its suits particular arguments at particular times.

  3. The OUP post makes the initial point that the cost was to the organisation being left, and does not state there was a cost to the country choosing to depart.
    It also states
    “the legitimacy of international organizations is no longer only tied to what they accomplish, but also to the processes by which their outputs come about. To be considered as legitimate, international organizations like the WTO for instance need to be transparent and accountable in their decision-making. They need to offer ways for civil society organizations to contribute to their work. The WTO is required to coordinate its activities with other organizations like the World Bank and the IMF.”
    This, to those who informed themselves before the Referendum, was a large part of the reason for choosing to leave the EU, in the absence of any apparent desire to change those processes.

  4. A thought-provoking consideration of the notion of “exceptionalism” – thank you. There is another dimension to this, that is more ethical than legal, that is also worth thinking about. I refer to the exceptional spectacle of many people – political figures and members of the public – wishing for, advocating and even working for damage or harm to be done to the EU. At the extreme we see examples of incitement to hatred towards, especially, the members of the EU Commission most prominent in the withdrawal negotiations. Others “merely” look forward to the imminent break-up of the EU as a result of UK withdrawal.
    Is this due to some inherent “uniqueness” in the situation, or just something nasty we should expect as an inevitable downside of human nature?

    1. Human survival, even, has depended on evolution of ideas, of practices, and in the example of the EU where an institution simply has failed to produce the anticipated results – increased levels of justice, income, opportunities – then the next stage is perceived as an essential evolution of ideas and aspirations.
      If that evolution is brought about by one or more countries detaching themselves, then it must be considered a benefit for a far wider community of interests.

      1. Are you suggesting the EU hasn’t produced increased levels of justice, income, opportunities or just that they haven’t necessarily appeared everywhere / where anticipated?

  5. I can’t comment in depth but in terms of the perspective from which Brexit is seen, UK voters and commentators focus almost exclusively (and understandably) on two parties, EU27 and UK, whereas there’s also a wider context of 28 parties, given that the EU leaders must manage 28 MS.

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