Simon Usherwood

One of the long-standing hallmarks of the UK’s relationship with the evolving system of European governance has been the persistence of treating this as something deeply external to British political life. 

“Brussels” was foreign and strange, making us do things against our will; successive generations of British politicians would “go to Europe” to fight for our interests and to stop the eurocrats meddling in our affairs.

Such tropes were both cause and consequence of the way in which the EU was held at arm’s length, in marked contrast to the much closer embrace found in other member states.

All of which served to produce a strange characterisation of the European Union in British debate, both before and after the referendum: simultaneously strong and weak; both rational and irrational; supranational, yet driven by member states. 

In one part of the debate, the EU steamrolls its way through any discussion, implacably pursuing its pre-determined goals without any thought or concern for those in the way. This is the Europe that drove Greece deep into austerity and crisis, while also bothering itself to deprive Brits of their prawn-cocktail-flavoured crisps.

Here the anonymous offices of drab Brussels streets hide anonymous officials, working remorselessly to achieve “ever closer union”, and innumerable politicians with pretensions to become president of it all.

But there is another face that been presented during the Brexit process. This is an EU that surely recognises when its self-interest is at play, which will drive it to agree to the UK’s terms for withdrawal, for fear of losing a major market and of alienating a major player in the world.

This face talks of German car makers shaping the debate, and of the need merely to drop a few words into the ear of the German chancellor for everything to be unlocked. And, pertinently for right now, this is the EU that always gives ground just before the deadline.

Of course, neither of these faces is particularly accurate or helpful, and say much more about the lack of understanding (indeed, or interest) on the part of the British public and politicians.

And yet, they matter.

The contorted view that the UK holds of the EU has certainly contributed to the way it has approached Brexit. From the government’s repeated efforts to cherry-pick their way through the four freedoms of movement, to its failed endeavours to pick off individual member states in bilateral negotiations, to the current ratification impasse where MPs imagine that the EU’s firmly stated position that it will not reopen the Irish backstop is just a ploy: all of these speak to a failure, even in an extreme situation, to look beyond the tropes and try to understand what is there.

The irony of it all is that it will take the rest of the Brexit process to offer even a glimmer of change on this: whether revocation, extension, renegotiation or discussion of a future relationship, the UK will find that it has to develop more of an understanding of the EU if it is to have a hope of finding a settled situation.

And maybe in so doing, the UK might find more understanding of itself and the place it is trying to become.


Simon Usherwood is Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme.


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane