Brexit, what Next? A civil society perspective

Date: 06/02/2023

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Dimitra Kiousi is a split-site PhD candidate at the University of Portsmouth (UK), School of Area Studies, Politics, History and Literature and Halmstad University (Sweden). Funded by the University of Portsmouth as part of a three-year Portsmouth-Halmstad partnership, Dimitra’s cross-collaborative project focuses on UK-Scandinavian network ties in the post-Brexit era by looking at environmental NGOs active in the offshore wind energy sector. Her primary interests revolve around processes of European integration and Differentiation, energy, and climate governance.

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Dimitra Kiousi,

“It could be – I’m not saying it is going to be – the beginning of the disintegration of the European Union or the Eurozone’’, Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics and International Business, commented on the aftermath of the Brexit vote during the World’s Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in 2016.

With that in mind, I shall attempt, through this short contribution, to highlight why complex phenomena such as the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to leave the European Union (EU) in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, known as Brexit, may stimulate further theoretical and methodological advancements within the wider European integration literature.

What does Brexit mean for the future of the EU, what are the prospects for the European integration project, and how likely is it that we see more differentiated or even disintegrative tendencies within the EU in the years to come? These are some big questions that, to date, remain fundamental to address. There is no doubt that the EU is currently at a crossroads, if not at a ‘tipping point’, as the decision to leave the European Union raises concerns over how to study European integration.

In my split-site PhD research, I am primarily interested in exploring transnational network interactions amongst UK-Scandinavian environmental NGOs in the post-Brexit era. This focus is in line with my eagerness to further understand how Brexit as a real-life example of disintegration in the EU affects the way non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are operating and working together post-Brexit, especially when it comes to environmental issues whose nature is transboundary. The environment is one of the three sticking points of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that the UK and the EU signed on the 30th of December 2020. The TCA does not require harmonisation with EU standards, enabling in this way the UK to develop its own approach on environmental issues. However, if we bear in mind that the implementation of environmental policies within the UK is a devolved matter, and that UK devolution is asymmetrical, certain divergences are expected to rise. To substantiate this argument, Burns et al in their report on the UK’s Environmental policy after Brexit, argue that the government’s ‘Green Brexit strategy’ for the next 25 years does not specify how governance in the devolved nations will be practiced.

This gap, consequently, makes us think that even if there are shared areas of convergence when it comes to the environmental policy, there will, certainly, be some forms of divergences in its implementation. Therefore, potential changes at the state level are likely to raise fundamental questions about how Brexit would not only affect the UK environmental policy domestically, but also what this means for UK civil society actors that have traditionally used the EU to foster regional and international cooperation on environmental issues and also contributed to the foundation of EU-level environmental NGOs.

Amid this wave of uncertainty and turmoil, it is more than imminent to broaden the scope of research when seeking to understand the complexity of Brexit as a multi-faceted phenomenon and its impact on non-state level actors. Current discussions and debates within academic and public discourses have stressed the importance of revisiting knowledge when it comes to concepts such as European integration, differentiation, and disintegration. Brexit offers a real-life case of shifting the lens towards civil society actors with the aim of finding answers about how it feeds back into these entities. Zielonka, in his book, argued that a necessary precondition for successful integration is the gradual shift from the mere state-centric confines toward the inclusion of ‘new’ actors ranging from cities, regions, NGOs, and transnational networks.

By way of concluding this contribution, Brexit has shed light on the need for a more diversified spectrum of actors when it comes to understand how current ideas, phenomena, entities adapt to socio-political changes. Substantial time, maybe decades, is needed to fully grasp the long-term implications of Brexit. It is about time we paid closer attention to processes or tendencies of disintegration from the ground up.

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