MPIEP No. 25

Still Not Yet Obsolete? A Neofunctionalist Account of Brexit

Arne Niemann, Geoffrey Edwards and Pia Jakobi


The UK decision to leave the EU poses a challenge to European integration theory at the supranational end of the spectrum. This process of horizontal disintegration by popular vote constitutes a particularly hard case for neofunctionalism, which has assumed a forward-moving integration project based on a "permissive consensus" among European citizens. Unsurprisingly, neofunctionalism has been dubbed "outdated" in view of the British membership referendum. In this paper – which examines the degree to which neofunctionalism may explain the Brexit process and referendum outcome – we argue that the theory still significantly adds to our understanding because (1) neofunctionalism may be able to theorise disintegration, to some extent, by tackling the issue of politicisation; (b) neofunctional dynamics, although overridden by other factors, were, and continue to be, present here; (c) neofunctionalism is a dynamic/transformative theory: a specification of the conditions of spillover can usefully delimit its scope of application – an exercise to which this paper seeks to contribute.

Keywords: Brexit, Elites, Integration Theory, Media, Neofunctionalism, Politicisation, Single European Market, Spillover

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