Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Brexit and the quest for identity

Finding a basis for commonality and social identification is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. From Britain to the United States, France to Australia, Western states are struggling with an identity crisis: how to cultivate a common cultural ‘core’, a social ‘bond’, which goes beyond the global economy and political liberalism. It is too early to predict whether Brexit is the last gasp of the old structure of national identity, or its revival. Some of the key factors involved in this quest for identity are Brexit and Britishness, the challenge of migration, the European Union, and Brexit and the Nation-State.

Brexit and Britishness

The debate over the meaning of being British has been a central feature in British politics over the last decade. Back in 2005, in order to promote attachment to British values, the Home Office introduced a ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test, which every person wishing to settle in the UK must pass. Three years later, in 2008, a government committee found that there had been a diminution in British identity; in order to foster community cohesion, it proposed an American-style pledge of allegiance to be recited in public schools. In 2014, following the ‘Trojan Horse affair’ in Birmingham, then–Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to promote belief in British values as a core curriculum component in every school. In 2015, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee held a public competition in order to find a preamble for a written UK Constitution; preambles, it stated, can foster community cohesion and express shared values.

A citizenship test, a loyalty oath, a core curriculum, a preamble—they all seek to construct a unique character to be shared and celebrated. But it is still difficult to specify what it means to have a British identity, or how legitimate it is to impose it on newcomers. Britain resembles a nation in search of a meaning, and Brexit is just another step in the journey in search of an identity.

The Challenge of Migration

Massive population movements to and within Europe are seen as the biggest challenge to the self-image of European democracies. Mass migration has inflamed cultural anxiety. The fear of the ‘Other’ was a central reason for Brexit (public polls show that two main reasons were migration and sovereignty). The influx of refugees and migrants, together with the rise of multiculturalism and minority rights, has challenged the democratic assumption that the majority group ‘can take care of itself’. Majority groups in Europe have become smaller in size—numbers matter, especially in a democracy!—and their culture has become more ‘needy’.

Massive population movements to and within Europe are seen as the biggest challenge to the self-image of European democracies

The EU has done little to address the challenge of migration. The lack of a clear EU immigration policy leads to a situation where a person wishing to become British can be naturalized in a more permissive state, for instance Sweden—or even ‘buy’ citizenship that is offered ‘for sale’ in Europe—and then relocate to a state with a stricter regime, for instance Britain. This creates a sort of ‘forum shopping’ where a person can choose the state with the most lenient requirements.

The European Union

National identity is challenged in Europe for another reason—the EU. The concept of Union citizenship was not seen as revolutionary in the early years of the Union. With the establishment of Union citizenship by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, most people saw EU citizenship as a minimalist concept intended to facilitate labour mobility and promote economic interests; the EU, however, has blossomed to be a supranational form of government. It has adopted Directives that have turned national citizenship into a weaker concept; the distinction between Union citizens and long-term residents has become thin. European courts, too, have narrowed the power of Member States on nationality issues. The submission of nationality policies for the approval of justices in Strasbourg was not foreseen.

The Europeanization of Member States acts, unintentionally, as a burial of the nation-state, and triggers a new form of nationalism—majority nationalism. Brexit is a ‘Yes-vote’ for the nation-state. It is a form of ‘cultural defense policy’ intended to guard Britain from what some people see as a consistent erosion of its national culture and sovereignty. That’s the greatest challenge of the European Union—how to balance EU jurisdiction and the sovereignty of Member States to preserve the core of their constitutional identity. In at least four EU states there is a majority to leave the Union; this majority is not necessarily against the European Union but, rather, for the nation-state and the idea of self-determination.

Brexit and the Nation-State

Brexit poses a challenge to the West—can it be both open and global and, at the same time, keep a national ‘core’ that distinguishes the ‘here’ from the ‘there’? In a deeper sense, Brexit invites us to observe the fundamental changes that concepts of sovereignty, self-determination, and the nation-state are currently undergoing.

Globalization, Europeanization, and immigration are not bogeymen, but neither is national identity. Without a national ‘centre’, societies are becoming more divided than ever, drifting, and falling apart. The Treaty of Lisbon has adopted a clause that provides that “The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties as well as their national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional” (article 4(2)). Brexit is a call to the EU (and to national governments) to find ways to implement this clause.

Featured image credit: ‘European Union Flags 2’. Photo by Thijs ter Haar. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. El roam

    Thanks for the post . very complicated issue , but one must notice the international norms and the implications on nations , and everything in light of the current global fight against terror .

    International law , emphasizes typically , humanitarian aspects , all , without any form of discrimination between : races , nationals ( basically ) , gender and so forth….

    All that , must face severe contradiction with national security . it takes hell of delicate balance , in order to maintain the rule of law , humanitarian international law , and fight against terror ( speaking of immigrants , especially in the EU zone ) .

    The layman ,may find it , more than bit stupid , to adhere to international humanitarian law or norms , and , fight and survive bitter and cruel terror .

    Such dialectical vectors , cause people ,to retreat back to strict , simple common sense may be revived in simple nationalism at the back of internationalism .


  2. All state generates its own elements to continue to exist as a state, the same state, to preserve its existence as a state, exercised full sovereign power it has to reaffirm and confirm their existence at all times, there is no international organization that prohibits him or prevent the free exercise you have to do, and this state is not obliged to justify its internal actions against others. Faced with the changes due to the effect of globalization on the economy and the right have occurred in all parts of the world, you must create autonomous internal measures that allow the State, rector of its own elements that allow it to exist autonomously, can continue to exercise this discretion and the coercive power of all persons. The government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, will every right to be able to carry out the implementation and application of Brexit within its territory. The government can adjust legal measures to preserve the existence as a state. Customary law should not be taken as an obstacle to believe that the Brexit should not apply. The decision has been taken and will bring better and good results for all who belong to this territory. There should be no fear and uncertainty, there must be a decision to complete this process before the European Union. Thank you.

Comments are closed.