In the wake of the 2016 referendum, it seemed as though Brexit might be part of a series of populist detonations across the European Union. The uk’s vote to leave followed the Greek ‘No!’ in the bailout plebiscite of 2015, while a range of insurgent politicians were raising the possibility of exiting the Eurozone or the eu itself. In France, Marine Le Pen yoked the Brexit cause to her own and argued for a return to the franc during her 2017 presidential campaign. Her rival on the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was highly critical of the neoliberal Lisbon Treaty and offered plebiscites on eu membership as part of his platform. In Italy, Matteo Salvini assailed the Eurozone while in Scandinavia, the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing populist party, mooted the prospect of ‘Swexit’. For a brief moment, it seemed as though the eu might be pulled apart by a series of ballot-box revolts—a new springtime of the peoples.

Of course, this never came to pass. Even in Britain, it soon became clear that the referendum alone would be insufficient to guarantee withdrawal from the bloc. The Brexit vote set in train a series of wrenching political, constitutional and social transformations, from trade barriers in the Irish Sea to party realignments and changing migration patterns. It took three more national ballots—two Westminster elections, in 2017 and 2019, plus the 2019 European Parliament poll, won by the Brexit Party—to secure the final outcome. On the Continent, almost all the eu’s populist challengers have retreated, if not surrendered. Le Pen has abandoned all flirtation with Frexit, Poland’s Law and Justice Party has quashed any talk of Polexit and Viktor Orbán now speaks of capturing the bloc through cooperation among national-populist parties, encouraging Central European states to wait until they become net contributors to the eu budget and gain the collective ability to set its direction. Most recently, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy has trumpeted its fealty both to the eu and to nato. Whatever challenge national populists might have posed to the eu, technocracy has now been thoroughly neutered.

In Britain, the outcome was equally revealing. In December 2019, Johnson won the largest Tory parliamentary majority since Thatcher by promising to ‘get Brexit done’, which appealed not only to those angered by Remainer calls for a second referendum but also to those who had long wearied of the feuding over Europe. Johnson’s promise was to steam ahead from Brexit to Global Britain. However, this was itself a project of democratic containment, offering a clear signal from the Johnson government to international markets, as well as to Brussels and Washington, that Britain’s commitment to neoliberal globalization trumped its promises to voters. Johnson is long gone, but Global Britain remains, as an economic model premised on importing labour—from Latin America and Southeast Asia as well as the former empire—and still captive to global finance capital, as demonstrated by the irony of Liz Truss’s abortive stint in Downing Street.

How then should we conceive the problem of democratic sovereignty in Europe—understood as a multi-national subcontinent stretching ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’—in the light of Brexit? What lessons can be drawn for the challenge of recombining national sovereignty with mass politics? Given everything that has happened since the uk’s final departure in January 2020—the pandemic, the energy crisis, rising inflation, the war in Europe—controversies over competing variants of Brexit may seem a thing of the past. Nevertheless, despite the seeming containment of Brexit and the resilience of the eu, the turmoil of the 2016–19 period indicates a political fragility that requires explanation. In what follows, I will explore the paradigm offered by the concept of member-statehood, testing its usefulness for understanding what happened during the Brexit process and then unpacking its implications for a politics of democratic sovereignty in the 2020s.

The development of the member-state concept drew much from Alan Milward’s problematization of the relationship between nations and supranational institutions, and from Peter Mair’s conceptualization of the weakening of democratic representation. But the breakthrough was made by James Heartfield, who noted how the eu’s power strengthened in proportion to the decay of democracy within its member countries, and that political legitimacy within it came from elite supranationalism, rather than democratic representation.footnote1

These insights were subsequently elaborated by Christopher Bickerton, who showed how the decline of public spheres across Europe indicated not merely an absence of representation, but a substantive and far-reaching transformation in the structure and functioning of European states—a shift ‘from nation-states to member-states’.footnote2 The core proposition of member-state theory was that accession to the eu involved much more than joining an exclusive international club. It involved an internal restructuring of the state itself—its institutions and decision-making processes, its relations with its citizens, the character of its authority and its legitimacy, as well as its external realignment. In short, the eu was not an exogenous structure bolted onto national states, but rather the outward form of changes that were internal to the states themselves. The driving force of these changes was the atrophy of the relations of political representation and accountability between rulers and the ruled that had characterized the post-war nation-state.

One elegant effect of this theory was the way it snapped the contrastive either-or manacles by which analysts of the eu, whether supportive or sceptical, could never agree whether it was a supranational entity in the course of becoming a federal superstate, or simply an institutional crutch for national interests—in headline terms: a United States of Europe or a new German Empire. The member-state concept suggested it would be neither. To forge a full-fledged union or super-state would only reproduce the very problem that member-states are designed to evade: the formal accountability that is implicit in national sovereignty. But if they are incapable of reproducing sovereignty at a pan-eu federal-state level, member-states have also lost the ability to assert it qua nations. A further implication of member-state theory was to cast the emergence of inter-governmentalism and its supranational appendages not as an advance, but rather as a historic retreat from the mass politics of the post-war nation-state, as popular demands over the course of the 1970s began to burst the bounds of what the latter could supply.