Brexit was a “Machiavellian Moment”

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The European Union (EU), one of the most significant economic and social creations of the second half of the 20th century, continues to be a bloc of considerable importance – e.g., with its huge single market, and as a regulator – the ‘Brussels effect’.

The EU’s worthiness was exemplified by the award to it of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 on the basis that the EU and its forerunners “had for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

Having joined the European Communities in 1973, Britain never seemed completely at ease – it was never fully on board as regards the direction of travel. In her 1988 Bruges speech the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her opposition to “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”. Her successor John Major secured an opt-out from joining the single currency. Almost a quarter of a century later Major strongly opposed Brexit, but not being part of the euro made it easier for Britain to exit the EU, a point made by Prof Catherine Schenk at a recent Robert Schuman Centre roundtable; neither did Britain participate in the Schengen Agreement. The euro crisis that began in 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015 intensified the pre-existing level of British euro-scepticism.

A “Machiavellian Moment”

In a 2020 interview with Prof J.H.H. Weiler for the European Journal of International Law, the EU’s High Representative for European Foreign and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, said that “The EU is not a military alliance and was even built against the very idea of power politics.” Thus the EU – with its emphasis on peace – could never have been described as a ‘Machiavellian project’. After all, one of the important political works of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was entitled The Art of War.

Although we cannot be absolutely certain, there is a reasonable case for suggesting that Machiavelli would have favoured voting to “leave” in the historic June 2016 referendum on EU membership. In one of the most extraordinary electoral results of modern times, a slender majority of the British public did precisely that – an outcome that can be described as a ‘Machiavellian moment’ – a moment in which Britain confronted “its own temporal finitude” (p. xxiv).

Despite having been a member of the bloc for over 40 years, and despite huge political and bureaucratic weight behind the ‘Remain’ position, the view of the British public overall was that the EU was not delivering stability across a range of important policy areas. The result was a stinging blow by the popolo – ordinary people – to the grandi – the élite – not just in Britain but right across Europe.

In Chapter XXI of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote about the need for governments to choose the lesser evil. In a referendum situation, the people are the government, the ones who get to decide. Substituting the word “people” for “government”, the relevant passage from Chapter XXI is as follows:

Never should any people believe they can always choose safe courses; on the contrary, they should suppose that they can take doubtful ones only, because this is in the order of things, namely, that never do we try to avoid one disadvantage without running into another. (Volume One, p. 84)

Former Governor of the Bank of England Lord Mervyn King caught the sense of this when he said that the decision about leaving the EU should not be all about economics, and that considerations of identity, culture and politics were more important.

In his address to a plenary session of the International Machiavelli Society inaugural conference in Rome on 14 December 2023, Prof. John McCormick of the University of Chicago contrasted the good leadership shown by Pacuvius in persuading the people of Capua to see the existential threat posed to them by Hannibal and his army, with the poor leadership shown by then UK Prime Minister Cameron in regard to not explaining well enough the damaging consequences that Brexit would entail.

In reality this example illustrates that Brexit was not an existential threat to Britain in the way that Hannibal and his army were to the people of Capua during the second Punic War. Yes, there have of course been costs, stresses, and strains arising out of Brexit, but the doomsayers have been proven wrong. Support for Scottish independence ebbs and flows but a report published earlier this month showed a six-point majority against.

Speaking during a Financial Times (FT) live event from Davos on 18 January 2024, the paper’s editor Roula Khalaf noted that the proceedings there this year were marked by “a craving for stability”. Khalaf also anticipated that, ironically, by the end of 2024 the UK would appear as one of the more stable countries, having essentially gone through its era of populism – i.e., having had Brexit.

Geopolitical aspects

EUI Emeritus Professor Brigid Laffan observed at a conference in Florence in December 2023 that the EU “really struggles to handle geopolitics” noting by way of example that the EU’s influence in the Gaza-Israel war was minimal – Qatar has much more influence than the whole EU, which is simply not a player, she said.

This being the case, surely it undermines the oft-made claim that Britain’s EU membership somehow augmented its voice on the world stage? Geopolitically, Britain’s position has arguably improved since it left the EU. Take the example of its privileged status as one of only five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the P5: the US, China, Russia, France and Britain). By leaving the EU, Britain has differentiated itself from France, the other western European P5 member, and will not be subject to likely growing pressure from its EU partners for France to cede its position in favour of a joint EU seat on the Security Council, once the legal obstacles to that can be overcome.

Militarily, the UK’s status as a key member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is unchanged, and the UK is generally considered to have performed very well in terms of supporting Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February 2022. While the EU is still debating the matter, Britain has participated in two military actions with the US to keep crucial sea lanes open.

Britain is a nuclear power and a member of the G7 group of leading world economies. Why would it need to participate in the endless succession of EU “summits” mostly with leaders from much smaller countries? Britain can still cooperate with them and with larger EU countries as required. Two recent examples were that Italy’s leader Giorgia Meloni invited her British counterpart Rishi Sunak to her annual political festival in Italy, while Germany’s Foreign Minister Baerbock co-authored a newspaper column with Foreign Secretary Cameron calling for a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

The catchphrase of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, is that the EU must learn to speak “the language of power” and not rely on its ‘soft power’ as heretofore. Machiavelli would have asked “Why have you only come to this realisation now?”

The Russian invasion of its neighbour Ukraine in February 2022 has shown just how dependent Europe is on US hard power for its defence and there is no prospect of this changing for many years to come, if ever – always allowing that the US continues to be prepared to carry the burden.


Michael Sanfey holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP) Lisbon. He is a Visiting Fellow at the EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, working on a research project entitled The Liberal International Order and Global Governance: Ramifications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.

This post is based on a presentation that Sanfey made to a panel on Machiavelli and Contemporary Theory within the International Machiavelli Society inaugural conference in Rome at Università Roma Tre (13-16 December 2023).