Brexit promises not only to have a major impact on British politics, but also on the nature of European integration. Drawing on a new book, Jarle Trondal, Stefan Gänzle and Benjamin Leruth explain why processes of differentiated integration and disintegration could play a greater role in the EU following Brexit.

The United Kingdom is set to become the first member state in the history of European integration to engage in an official process of disintegration. This not only places the European Union at a critical juncture; it also implies that a new chapter in the history of European integration will be unlocked.

This is the starting point for our new edited volume, which seeks to disentangle the implications Brexit poses for European integration at large. Has European integration reached a tipping point and is supranational cooperation reverting to the ‘old patterns’ of politics among European states? Or is there still enough appetite amongst member states to forge a new form of ‘European sovereignty’ as originally proposed by the French president Emmanuel Macron? There is a clear need for students and practitioners of European politics to debate the consequences of differentiated integration and disintegration in general and Brexit in particular.

An EU with multiple gears

Differentiated integration has become an increasingly prominent feature of European integration since the early 1990s. Although some forms of legal flexibility even appear in the Treaty of Rome, the concept was first discussed in the 1970s. It was only with the Treaty of Maastricht that differentiation developed into a mainstream phenomenon of European integration. As part of the Brexit process, however, it is now being complemented by the prospects of differentiated disintegration. By this term, we conceive of processes under which a member state withdraws from participation in the process of European integration or under which EU policies are transferred back to member states. This cannot simply be captured by putting existing theories of European integration into ‘reverse gear’. Differentiated disintegration requires some original conceptualisations and theory-building.

European leaders meeting at the G7 summit in Biarritz, Credit: Number 10 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

European integration has advanced in non-linear ways. Only a few of the EU’s competences have remained exclusive over time – most are shared with member states or completely left in the realm of the member state. Historically, there are several examples of disintegration – tentatively conceived as withdrawal from (some form of) membership – that have occurred throughout the history of European integration: Algeria (1962), Greenland (1985) and Saint Barthélémy (2012) have departed from the European Community/Union. None of these entities, however, have left the Community/Union as a ‘full’ member, as is most likely going to be the case with the UK.

Turning to the EU, differentiation can almost be categorised as the natural state of affairs because of the Union’s character as a composite polity. Importantly then, differentiation should not only be understood as yet another form of or response to crisis. The process of European integration is abundant with examples of fundamental crises, such as the ones triggered by the failure of the European Defence Community in 1954, the empty chair crisis of 1965–1966, and the ‘euro-sclerosis’ of 1970. Differentiation is not a crisis per se; it is rather a variant of integration.

Integration in reverse gear?

The EU is once again at a crossroads, and so is the scholarly literature on differentiation. Brexit means that the Union is facing a series of unprecedented challenges in uncharted territories. Differentiated disintegration (through Brexit) evokes a dual dilemma – both internal and external.

First, there is a dilemma of disintegration since the institutional and material bargaining power of states demanding disintegration is considerably lower than that of states demanding opt-outs in the context of integration negotiations. This negotiating structure, in short, has caused the UK government to make concessions on the Withdrawal Agreement and water down its demands on the future relationship with the EU over the course of the Brexit process. Moreover, once outside the EU, the UK is likely to experience fairly similar mechanisms forging strong administrative ties to the EU – thus the UK may face a form of ‘silent EEA-isation’ that follows the so-called ‘Norway model’. It is likely that the UK will continue cooperating with its EU partners in specific areas, such as migration control, as it already did so in the past even without subscribing to the overall goals of specific policy fields such as Schengen cooperation.

Second, the differentiated disintegration process triggered by Brexit is likely to reduce the demand for differentiation to the extent of turning disintegration into a non-viable option for members. This is illustrated by the evolving stance taken by some Eurosceptic and populist radical right parties – such as the Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats and the French National Rally – who have all started to back away from demands for an (immediate) exit.

The process of Brexit may be framed as a domestic British problem, but the 2016 referendum announced the beginning of a new era for the study of Euroscepticism and European integration. Our hope is that our work might help pave the way for the study of such a new era.

For more information, see the authors’ new edited volume, Differentiated Integration and Disintegration in a Post-Brexit Era (Routledge, 2020)

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the authors

Jarle TrondalUniversity of Agder and University of Oslo
Jarle Trondal is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder and Professor of European Studies at the ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo. His research concentrates on public governance, organisation theory, European executive governance and comparative international public administration.

Stefan GänzleUniversity of Agder
Stefan Gänzle is Jean Monnet Chair and Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and Management, University of Agder. His research focuses on EU foreign and security policy, differentiated integration, European Territorial Cooperation and comparative regionalism.

Benjamin LeruthUniversity of Groningen
Benjamin Leruth is Assistant Professor in European Politics and Society at the University of Groningen. His research interests are Euroscepticism, differentiated integration in the European Union and public attitudes towards governance.

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