March 19, 2019

Brexit: The Invasion of Irrationality
Opponents of Brexit in London are convinced that the UK already has the best deal—remaining in the EU.
Opponents of Brexit in London are convinced that the UK already has the best deal—remaining in the EU.

Shaping foreign policy has become an increasingly public matter.

Those Britons who voted for leaving the European Union on 23 June 2016 apparently had no idea of the political confusion they would cause in the UK and how ground-breaking the Brexit referendum would be.

This is, of course, true in hindsight. However, I disagree with the suggestion that Brexit emerged unexpectedly. Donald Trump becoming the US president might have been unexpected, but not Brexit.

A referendum was held in the UK in 1975 on staying in the then European Community (EC). The UK had joined only two years earlier, but the new Labour government led by Harold Wilson wanted new conditions in the negotiations with the EC, after which a referendum had to be organised to vote on the results because a decision by the House of Commons was not sufficient. Negotiations were held, the referendum resulted in the UK remaining in the Community, and the politics continued.

We must recall the premise on the basis of which the United Kingdom decided to join the EC. It was purely economic. The UK was the leading force in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but when London saw how the loosely associated EFTA’s economy was growing slower than that of the more closely integrated European Economic Community (EEC), it decided to accede to the latter.

This fact is important if we look at the conditions in which the EEC was created in 1957. (It was preceded by the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951; the European Economic Communities later became the European Community and in 1993 the European Union). European integration began with the endeavour to prevent the outbreak of another war in Europe. German occupation, pre-war differences between countries, protectionism that started with the Great Depression, rising extremism, the Holocaust—Western Europe was trying to avoid these phenomena recurring at all costs. If we wanted to be witty about it, we might say that the cost of all this was closer European integration than ever before.

Other Prerequisites

The UK didn’t suffer the negative experiences of German occupation. Although London and several other UK cities were bombed, the scale of destruction and loss of life was nothing like as extensive as in continental Europe. The British did not have to survive crimes against humanity, be it the Holocaust or the elimination or deportation of national elites. The national narrative says that, for a certain period, the UK stood alone against Hitler’s war machine. Thus, the UK never had such a need for political reconciliation and integration. While in continental Europe the press and the political elite more or less shared the view that criticising the European Union too much could rock its foundations (although there were, of course, exceptions to this rule), and thus awaken the monsters of war again, no such fears hindered the UK. On the contrary, the usual response from the British media to some Brussels initiative was to compare it to the Blitz. So the British media prepared the ground for Brexit and that is why it is not surprising that the referendum on 23 June 2016 concluded the way it did.

But why can the Brexit referendum be called ground-breaking? In fact, it was not a breakthrough that happened overnight. As already mentioned, British public opinion had been prepared for the result of the 2016 vote for years. It was therefore, rather, an evolutionary development that reached its logical end point.

In this sense, it is worth taking a brief look at developments just over a hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century and a little before that. The extension of suffrage and civil rights meant that public opinion was invading more and more spheres of life, including foreign policy. The whole story was made more complicated by the fact that public opinion could be observed not only in one’s own country but also in others. Of course, it could also be manipulated.1 For example, the British public was very annoyed by the Ottoman massacre in Bulgaria in 1876. One cannot, however, ignore the fact that the uncompromising position of the British prime minister, William Gladstone, may also have played a role in this.2

Since then, public opinion has become increasingly important in the shaping of foreign policy in democratic countries. Even if no referendum is organised, opinion polls and views expressed by the media, as well as election results, show politicians the direction they need to follow.

On the other hand, in the context of Brexit it is worth remembering the 500-year-old British tradition of communicating with continental Europe. The policy of “brilliant isolation” cultivated at the turn of the last century meant that the British had to follow the European powers’ policy of balance—no country in continental Europe could become too strong. This meant, however, joining one group or another on a temporary basis. It is worth recalling that in 1904 the UK and France formed the Entente Cordiale against Germany. Anyone who has read a little bit about British or English history knows that the UK (or at least England) and France had been bitter enemies since the Hundred Years’ War (who imprisoned Joan of Arc?) and the days of Napoleon (in whose detention did he die?).

In fact, the British continued to pursue similar policies in the EC and later in the EU. It is no wonder that Britain was one of the strongest supporters of EU enlargement, hoping that the Eastern European bloc would be a counterweight to balance the Franco-German axis, which wanted deeper integration of the Union. Until the economic crisis that began in 2008, we would talk about Estonia’s greater orientation towards the UK due to its liberal economic policy, but the crisis and the adoption of the euro—which meant greater budgetary control by the European Commission (read: Berlin)—led Estonia and many other countries to move towards Germany.

Public opinion, especially the suggestible variety, does not have to be logical or follow a country’s long-standing foreign policy traditions. The onslaught of public opinion in influencing foreign and security policy, which began just over a hundred years ago, culminated in the Brexit referendum. Of course, here in Estonia we cannot tell the British what their policies should be but, looking from the outside, it seems that the much-praised rationality of the British has been replaced by irrationality; Sir Humphrey Appleby has been replaced by Nigel Farage. But here is the real upheaval—the foreign policy shaped in backrooms is replaced by foreign policy made on Twitter and Facebook, where no one hesitates to pronounce half-truths or falsehoods. Long-term strategies are thrown into the bin for the sake of witty tweets.

Brave New Infantile World

Perhaps Brexit not only reflects the specific problems of the UK but is a glimpse of the future. Viivi Luik writes about the triumph of infantile behaviour in today’s world in the Estonian literary magazine Looming: “Where adults and mature people become the minority, infantile people, old children, become the majority, and where children have the upper hand, war can be expected, because, as has been said, war is children’s entertainment”.3

After all, Brexit is vastly entertaining too. News entertainment 24/7. Compare it to British cabinet meetings before World War I or II or recall Winston Churchill’s famous speech about blood, toil, tears and sweat. There is plenty of reference material.

It is no wonder that British prime minister Theresa May has to pursue a policy that needs to satisfy the people, the House of Commons and Brussels in an infantile atmosphere. People can decide for themselves how well she has succeeded so far.

An Estonian MEP, Igor Gräzin, recently wrote in the Eurosceptic British paper The Daily Telegraph comparing Brexit (let’s say, as expected) with Estonia’s departure from the Soviet Union and advocated leaving the EU with no deal.4 This seems quite likely at the time of writing.

Gräzin’s comparison between the EU and the Soviet Union had been used by the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in his speech at last year’s Conservative Party conference, when he said the EU was a prison, just as the Soviet Union had been in the past.5 There is no need to seek special expertise on where Hunt’s knowledge of the Soviet Union came from, since he recently announced that Slovenia had been the USSR’s vassal state.6 The former Yugoslavia was never a subject of the Soviet Union.

But Gräzin should know better. The facts are as follows: the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Estonia in 1940, while the UK voluntarily acceded to the EC. The Soviet Union killed and deported millions of people, but the EU has not killed or deported anyone.

This is, of course, an old story, and Eurosceptics still want to believe in the similarities between Brussels and Moscow. The intrigue, however, lies somewhere else, and Gräzin’s comparison of the eras is relevant here. It is a question of leaving without a deal. It is known that Estonia did not wish to sign the treaty on the creation of the USSR, referring to its legal continuity. The stalemate—Estonia refusing to sign, but still unable to leave the Soviet Union—was only resolved with the 1991 attempted coup and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Something similar could happen in the EU—Marine Le Pen could rise to power in France like Boris Yeltsin in Russia, or Alternative for Germany (AfD) might win the elections in Germany, leading to the collapse of the EU.

The question is whether the EU will collapse so that the British can leave without a deal. No one can predict the future, and only the biggest fanatics believed in early 1991 that the Soviet Union would no longer exist by the end of the year.

Scenario B

It would be unjust to the British to see everything in dark colours. So far—despite dire speculation—the British have not withdrawn from their security responsibilities and still hold the leading role among NATO pre-deployed forces in Estonia. We can therefore hope that the British will remain connected to Europe through security matters.

The UK is still among the world’s top ten economies, and it is not plausible that a collapse will follow when the island state leaves the EU—if, of course, the country itself remains united. Scotland may want to compare London with Moscow and shed the oppressor. Perhaps London can curb the fiery Scots. You never know—we are living in an infantile era …


1 Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. Profile Books, p. 9.

2 Ibid., p. 35.

3 Viivi Luik, “Rahu ja sõda”. Looming 2 (2019), p. 260.

4 Igor Gräzin, “The British defeated the EU – you should be demanding surrender terms, not offering them”. The Telegraph, 6 March 2019.

5 See, e.g. The Independent, “Conservative Conference: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt likens EU to Soviet Union” (video), 30 September 2018. (Hunt’s comparison was immediately criticised, among others by the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.)

6 See, e.g., The Independent, “Jeremy Hunt enrages Slovenia by wrongly saying it was ‘a vassal state of the Soviet Union’”, 23 March 2019. (The story is particularly astounding, as the British Embassy in Slovenia should have warned Hunt of such an error. It seems incredible that the embassy did not see the text of the statement in advance or that Hunt ignored the embassy’s advice).


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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