How the EU27 Came to Be

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Series Details Volume 57, Number S1, Pages 13-27
Publication Date September 2019
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The evening of 23 June 2016 was a momentous one in the history of European integration. In an ‘in-out’ referendum, the UK opted for ‘exit’ over ‘voice’ when voting by 52 per cent to leave the European Union. On that narrow margin, the first member state in the history of the EU was heading for the exit. The Brexit shock came at a time when the EU had endured a series of crises beginning with acute turbulence in the Eurozone, followed by the refugee crisis in 2015 and a deteriorating geopolitical environment. The immediate reaction from the media was that this shock might lead to the disintegration of the EU as the final straw that broke the camel's back. It seemed more than a weakened Union could bear. In fact, the EU responded to Brexit with resolve and a determination to protect the polity. The reflex was almost biological in character and the intent was to preserve the genus.

In this lecture, I explore what the EU response reveals about the Union, about what membership means and how the EU behaved as a strategic actor in the aftermath of the referendum. My objective is to understand and explain how the Union framed Brexit, created a Brexit toolkit and defended its interests. The reaction to Brexit, I will argue, reveals the DNA of the EU as a maturing polity exemplified by the Union's determination to use its full capacity when faced with an existential threat. By June 2016, the Union's capacity to absorb shocks had strengthened as Europe's Union had been tested and contested through crises. The context in which the UK embarked on a referendum and its subsequent outcome is important to understanding the Union's reflex when the result became apparent.

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This was the JCMS Annual Review Lecture, delivered 4 April 2019 at the European Parliament.

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