An International Relations account of Brexit

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On the morning of June 25th, I woke up, as many of us, to the unexpected result that 51.9% of Britain had voted to leave the European Union. As a French citizen, whose father is British, mum is French and was born in Brussels (but lived in New York, Geneva and Brussels before coming to study in London – typical LSE story), I first and foremost feel strongly European. So as many of us, it was with great grief that I learnt Britain wanted to separate itself from the European project. However, I would like to explain why this hit to the European Union saddened me as much as it did (apart from the fact that I also felt powerless having been unable to vote given I do not have British citizenship).
The European Union is not only a project for European citizenship, international peace, common Human Rights Law, funds for less developed regions, free movement of goods and people, a bigger weight on the international scene (being able to confront Great Powers like the United States or China). It is a project for achieving cosmopolitan world citizenship in an increasingly connected and globalised world.
German social and political thinker Jürgen Habermas’ account of the European project in his essay and book, “The crisis of the European Union” (which I strongly urge all you LSE Students read) explains that the European project is currently an international community, but could be a step towards leading us to a cosmopolitan world society if we were to reform it, given its current crisis. For all you International Relations Students, this should make some sort of sense. In International Relations, realists and neorealists believe international relations are organised as a state-system. In this Hobbesian-type thinking, States are at the heart of international relations as self-interested and power-seeking actors. States look to preserve themselves and guarantee their own security first and foremost. The English School (another School of thought of which LSE is most fond of) conceives international relations as an internationl community, where States also try to preserve themselves and are self-interest seeking. It however diverges from realism by thinking that States will have common interests and therefore cooperate. This international community is thus regulated by rules and norms set by the States wishing to collaborate towards achieving their shared aims (including to preserve themselves through international peace). This aligns itself with Grotian thinking (from Dutch jurist Grotius who thought about international law, natural law and the society of states). Finally, Kantian thinking conceives international relations as a cosmopolitan world society where humans are all part of a wider single community (itself based on inclusive shared morality and universal hospitality). It questions and moves beyond the notions of nation-state and nationalism. Perhaps could we see Kantian cosmopolitanism as an ideal, an aim for Internationl Relations. Habermas in the third section of his essay explains that the European project, currently an international society, could be a perfect step towards building a cosmopolitan society. It would be an attempt to move beyond borders (as financial markets already have, and are currently beyond the control of any powerful nation state). It would help solve the current crisis the European union is undergoing.


I understand that not everyone has had the same privileged background as I have. I nonetheless find it upsetting that we are taking an outer-step from the cosmopolitan society I regard as our aim. We ought to turn ourselves towards Kant and understand that we are all world citzens sharing common humanity. The European Union was orignially and still is a project for the defense of European, but also international peace. In the pre-Brexit debate, the Remain side was too often about the economic advantages of remaining, whereas the Leave campaign was itself about identity, immigration and globalisation. Cosmopolitanism is a powerful reponse to growing nationalism in Europe. Citizens should be reminded of it. It should not be regarded as some sort of intellectual idealism.
So, although the European Union is far from perfect and still a work in progress, we have managed to progress from being an economic and political union to also being a social one. And progress is still yet to come if we continue to unite “in diversity”.

Eponine Howarth