The UK and Europe

The structure and agency of Brexit

Simon Usherwood / Apr 2017

Photo: Shutterstock


A former colleague of mine used to argue that pretty much everything could be understood through the prism of the structure-agency debate. While this made for exciting departmental meetings (and trips to the university bar, for that matter), I remained resolutely unconvinced by the argument, not least because I distrust anything that looks like a sweeping generalisation.

However, as we enter into the uncharted waters of the Article 50 negotiations, there is a clear value in considering how structure and agency are playing out.

For those who have not had the joy of a colleague, friend or family member with sociological or International Relations training, the discussion revolves around the question of how much one’s actions are freely determined and how much they are shaped and constrained by wider patterns of behaviour and power. Thus, as I ready myself for the Easter break, I’m thinking about what I want to do (nothing) and what I have to do (some marking), plus what I should do (some podcasting), as well as what I am expected to do, but won’t do (write a report).

In short, we don’t get to make all our own decisions, either because someone else makes them for us, or because we think about the consequences of our choices on others. It’s a bit like Lukes’ three faces of power, but dressed in the clothes of the individual, not the dyad.

The opening gambits of the Article 50 negotiations offer a deeply instructive illustration of how structure and agency operate and relate to each other. To put it bluntly, the UK has a lot less agency than it did.

Once the referendum result was reached, in the early hours of 24 June last year, the UK moved into a position of balancing on the edge on invoking Article 50: David Cameron’s decision to resign immediately gave the government an extended window of opportunity in which to shape what came next.

With the weight of the referendum behind it, the government could hold a high level of control over the process of subsequent discussions with the EU, by not committing to any specific date for notification. However, the pressure from the Tory backbenches and the bizarre collapse of the leadership contest – with its backstabbing, withdrawals and personal slandering – meant that Theresa May was catapulted into Number 10 on the back on her firm line that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

As much as that meant anything, it meant May was going to follow through on notification and withdrawal from the EU. But that was not a plan, just a slogan, and the period since the summer has been the time when the UK could have exercised what agency it had and set the agenda for the moment when it did notify.

And here comes the oddity of the situation.

From the very start, it was clear to everyone that Article 50 was designed with the EU’s interests at heart, not the departing member state’s. Thus, rather than being like menu, where the member state selects what they want from the list (and pays the bill for it), it’s more like a strange pop-up restaurant, where the (many) cooks decide what to offer the customer, who then either takes or walks away with nothing. After paying for the drink they already had.

The structure of Article 50 places communal interests first, by making an exit deal require qualified majority support from remaining member states, plus needing European Parliament approval. The only safeguard to the departing member state is the two-year rule, which ensures that the EU doesn’t halt departure through disorganisation or malice.

Given this, why didn’t the UK make much more of the opportunity it had to exercise its agency?

One option would be that it considered Article 50 to be just one option for withdrawal. While not as common as it was last year, there are still some (British) voices who consider that the UK can just depart immediately, either by disapplying the relevant UK enabling legislation or by simply saying the country is out. Despite seeming to go against most views of international law on treaties, it is possible that this coloured the view of how to present matters.

However, this depends on a conviction that exit with no deal – either through these novel means, or through running Article 50 out of time – is a desirable one for the UK.

Certainly, a major part of what has been said in the UK over the past nine months has been the rhetoric of ‘Great Britain’ and its glorious past, present and future. If you’re looking for a symbol of this worldview, then consider the royal yacht Britannia the perfect embodiment of a country that has weight and significance in the world. You might see a public procurement nightmare, but Britannia speaks to a half-remembered golden age where the UK arrived and directed matters. In more objective terms, it’s about as credible as threatening to ‘do a Falklands’ to protect Gibraltar.

And this is perhaps the nub of the matter: much of the senior levels of the UK government both buy this worldview, at the same time as they have been largely ignorant of what the EU is and does.

The most telling part of the time since last June has been the steady stream of news reports, industrial briefings and – more recently – official documents that highlight the complexities and consequences of leaving the EU for the UK. Central in this is the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which has been ever more publicly exposed as a writing into UK law of the entire acquis until such time as the government can work out what to keep and what to cut.

Of course, we might take a more generous interpretation of May’s silence on what she is looking for in the negotiations: she hasn’t wanted to raise expectations about outcomes, especially after seeing her predecessor make exactly that mistake in his ‘renegotiation’ prior to the referendum. But even this more thoughtful approach is undermined by the few claims that were made.

First and foremost in these was the initial determination not to have the UK subject to any CJEU control. Even someone with a very basic knowledge of EU law will tell you that is impossible if you want to have any negotiated agreement with the EU post-membership and yet it took until the notification letter itself for the notion to be dropped.

Likewise, the desire to be in the customs union, but outside the common external tariff offends basic economics and May’s Lancaster House claim to be ‘open-minded’ on how that might work sounded about as clueless as it was.

As we have moved into the formal phase, the structure that was always waiting has closed in. Assuming that the European Council adopts the proposals from Donald Tusk for an outcome, then there is already broad agreement among the EU27 about what they will offer the UK, and how. Whether or not the UK government has truly appreciated the full consequences of the process, they are going to find the next two years a painful – and painfully public – demonstration of the limits to agency that all states face these days.

Maybe that will be the spur for a British re-evaluation of what they want to achieve in the world and of how best to go about it.


Simon Usherwood

Simon Usherwood

April 2017

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