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Analysis #51

Beyond the Full Brexit: For Democratic Self-Determination and Internationalism for the Whole of Europe

Philip Cunliffe

7 February 2020

Brexit is just the first blow against the anti-democratic European Union. We should hope for – and work towards – the restoration of democratic, self-determining nation-states across the whole continent.

We at the Full Brexit have argued that Boris Johnson’s Brexit is not the Full Brexit. Yet as dedicated internationalists, we also want more than Brexit.


Going beyond the Full Brexit means going beyond Britain itself. Foremost among such political objectives is the historic potential to reunify Ireland as a consequence of Brexit, and thereby finally relinquish the largest remaining outpost of the British Empire (see Analysis #40 - The Flaw in the Crown: Why Popular Sovereignty in Britain Means Reunification in Ireland). Brexit forced the Conservative and Unionist Party – the traditional champion of Empire and British rule in Ireland – to cut loose their traditional allies, the Ulstermen, in order to secure their own rule in Britain. It was Boris Johnson who liquidated the Tories’ parliamentary bloc in Westminster with the Democratic Unionist Party by agreeing to a customs border in the Irish Sea, which signified another step back from British claims over Irish territory. Britain’s long retreat in Ireland is a consequence of its lack of adequate political authority there. If this halting and stumbling process of historic retreat can be accelerated, Ireland can be a nation once again. With Sinn Fein resurgent in the South, Brexit offers an unprecedented moment for Britain to recognise the true scope and limits of its sovereign authority by withdrawing from Ireland. In the process, it will remove a barrier to another European country achieving the potential of its sovereignty too. A united Ireland now lies within reach, if the political will is there to grasp the prize.

Beyond the archipelago however, going beyond the Full Brexit requires nothing less than the transcendence of the EU on the continent itself, and its supplanting with a new European political system, based on national self-determination, democracy and popular sovereignty. For democrats and internationalists, Brexit would always be insufficient, as British secession from the political structures of the EU would still leave the EU intact, continuing to function as a machine to curb self-government, institutionalise austerity and subvert democracy across the continent.


While the EU may not be the most powerful enemy of global democracy, it is without a doubt the most insidious. By way of contrast, take the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which also rules a continent-sized economy and openly sneers at democracy,  taking Brexit as an exemplary demonstration of the potential for democracy to damage global trade and business. The EU, conversely, formally honours democracy and human rights, with a European Parliament and a foreign policy of democratisation built into its eastwards expansion.


Yet while the EU may venerate democracy in theory, it consistently subverts it practice, albeit perhaps with a daintier panache than the blatant and murderous authoritarianism of the CCP. Unlike the Chinese single-party state, the EU allows for multi-party elections and competition in its parliament. Yet it prevents that very same parliament from initiating its own legislation, reserving this to the Commission, and only three percent of EU laws are debated on the floor of the parliament.


To be sure, unlike China, the EU allows referendums. At the same time, there is no other political system in the world today that has developed such a cunning record of subverting referendums, hemming them in either by ignoring the results or overturning them by battering voters into submission through forcing them to vote again. Indeed, the EU prefers plebiscitary and executive-centred rule to representative democracy, and the EU has consistently empowered executive decision-making across the continent, at both the national and supranational levels, giving succour to national populists. To be sure, the EU co-exists with national governments. Yet national governments that break with Brussels are usurped in technocratic coups, bullied into submission or punished with austerity. Some governments are denied even the show of independence, such as the EU protectorates in the Balkans. It is this organised liberal subversion of democracy at a continental level that makes the EU the most insidious opponent of democracy in the world today.  


What the EU demonstrates above all is that without self-determination, democracy can be contained, limited and then dispersed through supranational “multilevel governance” frameworks that have been devised and refined over decades for the express purpose of fragmenting, diluting and channelling popular will away from centres of power and decision-making (see Analysis #1 - The EU's Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty). What Brexit demonstrates is that the supranational structures of planetary governance that have proliferated since the end of the Cold War have become unmoored from any structures of democratic input and popular control, and consequently they are fragmenting and disintegrating as nations and voters seek to re-establish control over their societies. What the global slump since 2008 demonstrates is that the EU is incapable of democratic reform. If ever there was a historic moment to progress towards political union and popular accountability, it was in the wake of the existential debt crisis that afflicted the Eurozone following the 2008 crash. The EU chose the course of empire and austerity instead, devastating the Greek economy for daring to reject Euro-austerity in the 2015 referendum. The past ten years show that the EU is incapable of restructuring itself to incorporate popular will, democratic scrutiny and public accountability (see View from Europe #3 - The Future of the EU: Soldiers, Barbed Wire and Surveillance).  


The EU is a post-modern prison-house of peoples. It is an attempt to restore a Holy Alliance model of European politics: a model that retreats from the principle of national self-determination – established as the organising principle of European order after the Russian Revolution – back to the reactionary order imposed on Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. This was the era when Europe was ruled by cosmopolitan empires and dynastic elites who collaborated around a finely-tuned system of continental diplomacy designed to suppress national independence and popular movements. Unlike the earlier Holy Alliance, however, our twenty-first century incarnation has built itself around a cosmopolitan meritocracy rather than aristocracy, and its noblesse oblige is justified by an insipid social liberalism rather than feudal duties. The EU also succeeded where the Holy Alliance failed in extending its sway to Britain and France, both of whom historically stood for liberal self-determination in Europe.


Internationalism requires respect for sovereignty and self-determination, and self-determination requires the assumption of collective political responsibility at the national level (see Proposal #12 - Moving Towards Socialism: Economic Reform, Popular Sovereignty and the Nation-State). Ireland may be united as a result of Brexit, but it will not be sovereign while it remains inside the same EU that imposed crushing austerity on Irish citizens in order to rescue French and German banks. Indeed, it is the Eurozone that makes self-determination for the peoples of Europe so hard – and so necessary. The political logic of Brexit entails a long-term wager on European politics – a wager on the continuing democratic legitimacy and necessity of sovereign states as against the post-democratic and post-sovereign politics pioneered by the EU. Brexit has relit the beacon of democracy in Europe; it is now up to the citizens of European nations to pick up the torch. By the same token, as internationalism always begins at home, it is up to Brexiters to pursue the logic of Brexit by withdrawing Britain from Ireland and extending the dynamic of popular sovereignty and democratisation within Britain itself.

About the author

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.


This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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