Untangling the case for Brexit: A critical investigation into identity- and rationality-based thinking

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, International Developments

By Dr.Filippos Proedrou, Vice President KEDISA

Britain’s relationship with the EU has diachronically been a topical issue. Britain declined to join the founding six in the early 50s; changed its mind and applied twice unsuccessfully for EU membership in the 1960s; was accepted at its third effort in 1973; asked for and was granted rebates in the 80s; succeeded in being granted (and having institutionalized) opt-out clauses; remained outside of the Eurozone; was contemplating of a referendum on Eurozone membership in the beginning of the previous decade; and has recently announced a referendum on EU membership.

This inconsistent, one could argue schizophrenic, attitude towards the EU comes under scrutiny now since it realistically threatens with a Brexit, exactly at a point where the EU is faced with multiple serious, existential threats. International Relations theory can enrich our understanding under two different prisms reflecting causal and constitutive mechanisms. Rationalist theories (liberalism and realism) would scrutinize British official policy and popular attitudes through the prism of rationality and cost-benefit analysis (although the liberals would cast this debate in terms of interests and realists in terms of power) (Rosenau, 1970; Baldwin, 1993). The bottom-line of the argument is that the British would be better off outside, rather than inside, the EU. Social constructivists, on the other hand, would focus on identities and their interaction and would underline British incongruence with continental Europe (Checkel, 1998).

Starting with the latter, history and geography have played a crucial role in shaping British mentality as distinct from that of continental Europe. The imperial glorious past, the inviolability of British borders and their defensibility during the Second World War against German raids, and its victorious outcome have all synergized to produce a feeling of superiority and distinctiveness of Britain in the post-1945 era. The smooth transition from the British to the US hegemony through the drafting, and branding, of the two entities’ “special relationship” has enabled Britain in practice to stand aloof of the project of European integration in its first decades and retain a special, semi-detached attitude thereafter. Reaction to and the very questioning of EU membership, hence, makes sense on the basis of diverging identities shaped within diverse historical conditions.

At the same time, though, Britain is fundamentally European, sharing European values, ideas and principles with its continental partners, as well as holding a seat in all European institutions. In this respect, Britain is both distinct from the rest of Europe, at the same time that it is distinctively European. The legacy of empire has certainly passed over a definitive internationalist posturing; but so is the case with all the other former colonial European powers to varying degrees.

In rationalist terms, membership entails no doubt both benefits and costs. Nevertheless, what strike someone in the Brexit discussion are the ambiguity, vagueness and lack of elaborative discussion on the alternatives. In particular, Britain is faced with three strategic options in case it leaves the EU:

  • EEA membership – Membership of the European Economic Area would allow Britain to stay in the biggest single market of the world and retain its benefits. Exiting it would simply be disastrous in economic terms since it would substantially diminish beneficial trade with a lucrative market of around 450 million consumers (the size of the EU market minus the British population), and hence remains a non-, or at least utterly muted, option. Opting for EEA membership means not only that Britain will have to pay the EU for being a member of EEA (as Norway does, for example), but also that it should comply with all EU market regulations, which it will not have negotiated, co-shaped and co-decided. This would deal an unacceptable blow both to British democracy and sovereignty, the supposed harmful impact of EU membership on which has been the flagship of the campaign to leave the EU. This option then seems less beneficial than the status quo.
  • Strategic partnership – This refers to relations between sovereign states who opt for selective cooperation of the standard internationalist kind in strategic sectors. Nevertheless, this deal precludes the very privileges (no tariffs, free movement of economic factors etc.) that membership entails and Britain wishes to retain (without, however, bearing the respective burdens). As such, it cannot apply to the British case.
  • A new form of association, a “virtual membership” – This option is rather open-ended, vague and to be defined. Indeed, such negotiations presuppose enough time, mutual good will and ample political energy. Amid the multiple crises that the EU is fraught with, it is doubtful that such negotiations can be materialized in this tense geopolitical environment and at such a short time before the referendum. Such a debate would also open the Pandora’s box for variable geometry integration; the EU hence is in its part rather reasonably avert to go along with British pledges (Social Europe, 2015).


This last point brings us to the several challenges both the EU and Britain are faced with. Just to mention the most pressing ones, the terrorist threat in the background of the deadly Paris attacks, the overwhelming refugee crisis, climate change and persistent economic hardship in the aftermath of the global recession of 2007-2009 are all inherently de-bounding issues that disregard borders and call for a differentiated version of sovereignty.

Indeed, we find ourselves in a post-sovereign world, where states cannot define threats in national ways, let alone solve them in isolation from one another. In this context, the terrorist threat has grown exponentially and Britain would highly benefit from the creation of a very much needed European intelligence service. Britain also stands to benefit from tighter EU external controls. Getting outside of the EU would only intensify migratory pressures through the Channel. Climate change can definitely only be tackled in collaboration with others, and by means of setting common goals and designing shared policy schemes, firstly with EU partners that have set the most ambitious environmental goals globally. Lastly, economic recovery is much more likely within, rather than outside of, the biggest single market of the world and one of the most powerful economies globally.

The debate on the pros and cons of EU membership for Britain binds up with the heuristics and biases literature. Heuristics can be conceptualized as mental tools/ shortcuts which facilitate decision-making under conditions of uncertainty (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). These, however, usually produce a number of biases in people’s judgments. Four of them can be singled out as very pertinent to the British case and the country’s ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the EU. In particular:

  • Overconfidence – many would insist that Britain can easily stand on its own, thus overestimating its potential and underestimating the costs that would emanate from a Brexit.
  • Selective perception – the expectations that Britain will be better of outside rather than inside the EU fortifies faith that this is the best scenario; it hence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Ostrich – people tend to disregard indications/ arguments that go against their beliefs; in our case, substantial evidence suggests that getting outside of the EU entails significant costs, which are however underappreciated for the moment.
  • Conservation – the other side of the previous bias regards people’s tendency to attach more credibility to evidence that reinforces their initial beliefs. Any indication of additional benefits that a Brexit would potentially yield adds to and strengthens prior disposition in favor of Brexit.


In a nutshell, both identity- and rationality-based thinking does not bode well with British adventurous flirting with re-making its partnership with the EU. Caution is required that British popular politics do not lead to counter-productive results and stalemate.



  • Baldwin, D. (1993). Neoliberalism, neorealism, & world politics. In: D. Baldwin (ed.), Neorealism & neoliberalism: The contemporary debate. Columbia University Press: 3-27.
  • Checkel, J. T. (1998). “The constructive turn in international relations theory”. World politics02: 324-348.
  • Rosenau, J. (1970). The scientific study of foreign policy. New York: The Free Press.
  • Social Europe (2015). Views on the UK’s renegotiation: Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, 19 November 2015. Available at
  • Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases”.Science 4157 1124-1131.