By: Jason Wolf*

In June of 2016, the United Kingdom sent shockwaves throughout the world by voting to leave the European Union (EU). With a referendum vote of 52% to 48%, the people of the UK moved to withdraw the country from the Intergovernmental Organization (IGO) that unites Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the pound dropped to its lowest valuation in thirty years, and David Cameron, who opposed Brexit, stepped down from his position of Prime Minister and was replaced by Theresa May, who ironically opposed Brexit as well. While aspects of Brexit, such as these domestic UK issues, have been in the limelight in the wake of the referendum, there is much uncertainty regarding where Brexit leaves the EU.  The UK’s decision to leave effectively undercuts not only the goals of the EU, but potentially also the concept of IGOs as a whole.

The EU was founded in 1993 as a means for managing the economic responsibilities of European nations and establishes a broad common market across member states. The EU transcends economics, as goals of the EU besides being a free-trade association include cooperation in affairs such as security, justice, and social policies. In order to be a part of the EU (or any IGO that encourages cooperation amongst member-states) and share in these responsibilities, states must agree to cooperate when making decisions regarding the policies previously mentioned. While the United Kingdom has operated within the EU in pursuit of these aforementioned goals since its founding, some British citizens became disillusioned with the economic and political cost of membership. Furthermore, they have found themselves disappointed with the perceived restriction of independence that they’ve received back in return.

Until the recent decision to leave, the United Kingdom had been a major economic power within the EU, accounting for a 12.57% contribution of the €145 billion 2015 EU budget (Hunt 2016). This amount ranks them third in contributions, behind only Germany and France. Given the large contribution from the UK, those in favor of Brexit argue that not only is the money being mismanaged, but that the cost of the contributions could otherwise be put back into the UK itself (“We In The Leave Camp” 2016). This narrative of nationalism, popularized by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), perpetuates a desire for the UK to put itself first. This success of nationalism is significant, as not only does Brexit undercut the EU economically by removing its third largest contributor, but it also serves as an example of how fervent nationalism could be problematic for IGOs across the globe.

Not only does Brexit directly weaken the EU through the impending departure of the UK’s economy, but it may also serve to provoke similar responses from other anti-EU parties within EU member states (Tully 2016). This prospect is threatening to the EU, and given the UK’s prominence within the EU, it sets a bad example that other member states might follow. Should this be the case, it could create a snowball effect of anti-EU sentiment to the point where member states find themselves deciding economic and security policies independently rather than going through the proper channels to create change throughout the entirety of the EU. This result would effectively undermine the existence of the EU as a whole, and would potentially serve as an important regional scale example of how an IGO could struggle to execute their goal of cooperation amongst members.

An aspect of Brexit more important than any potential economic fallout is the symbolism of the UK leaving the EU. As mentioned, the EU was founded in 1993. Its roots, however, go as far back as the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community in the 1950s following World War II.  An important reason for uniting Europe within an IGO was to help heal the continent’s wounds from the conflict and usher in a new era of peace (Matthews 2016). With this in mind, Brexit symbolizes not only the UK shunning their role in contributing to the EU, but also it represents a lack of confidence in the ability of an IGO to maintain lasting peace.

Given that the purpose of the EU was to unite the continent after what had been the most destructive conflict in history, Brexit effectively undermines that purpose and represents a shift back towards the division that once plagued relations within Europe. While this alarming shift represents a regression of relations within Europe, it also raises questions regarding the viability of using IGOs as a peacekeeping measure. What happens next between the UK and the EU will be essential in deciding the fate of the EU. While the UK could still remain on friendly terms with the EU in the time leading up to their official departure and beyond, it still undermines the concept and goals of an IGO. The lack of effectiveness from an IGO symbolized in Brexit represents a state prioritizing their own self-interest, which could be calamitous for the EU, especially if another major power such as France or Germany ever decided to follow suit.


Work Cited

Hunt, Ben. “The Brexit Fate Debate.” Modern Trader (2016): 38. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 12 Sept. 2016.

Matthews, Owen. “Brexit Wounds.” Newsweek Global 167.1 (2016): 12. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

Tully, Shawn. “The European Union Is In Big Trouble.” Fortune 173.7 (2016): 10-12. Business Source Premier. Web. 12 Sept. 2016.

“We In The Leave Camp.” Vital Speeches Of The Day 82.7 (2016): 209. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 12 Sept. 2016.


 *Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the views of the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.