Trade, Development, and Immigration

Why Brexit was a mistake, from a libertarian perspective

Many libertarians supported Brexit, believing it would reduce governmental layers and bring power closer to the British people. They saw it as an opportunity to escape the control of Brussels’ technocracy, expecting increased autonomy and economic freedom. However, this article argues that Brexit, rather than decreasing government control, intensified it in the UK. Some libertarians supported Brexit due to a misunderstanding of the European Union’s essential nature and role.

The libertarian argument for Brexit was centred around the idea of eliminating the perceived excessive interference by the EU. Moreover, Brexit was seen as a form of secession, which is often favoured to promote a libertarian agenda. Supporters of Brexit envisioned a rejuvenated Britain, regaining sovereignty and experiencing fewer regulatory constraints. They imagined a country liberated from Brussels and Luxembourg, able to independently navigate its future, potentially leading to greater liberty and economic efficiency. However, this perspective failed to understand the EU’s function and the implications of breaking away from it.

The critique of the EU often portrays it as an overreaching superstate, taking over national sovereignty. This perspective, fuelled by the rhetoric of the EU Commission’s technocrats and the broader Brussels establishment, erroneously suggests ambitions for a European superstate – a misconception that played a role in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. This interpretation overlooks the true nature and purpose of the EU. Contrary to being an emerging superstate, the EU essentially operates as a collection of regimes designed to check excessive state power. The notion of the EU as a nascent absolute state is a misinterpretation of its real function: to regulate and balance state powers, particularly in economic matters.

The EU originates from the principle of vertical separation of power. Significantly, the EU allows for member withdrawal, underscoring its distinction from absolute states, which are characterised as indivisible. Membership in the EU involves states mutually restricting their arbitrary power – for example, of limiting international trade or controlling the movement of people. These are areas where government policies typically spill over from extensive domestic intervention. In an era where state power is more extensive than ever, the primary method for curbing such power is through a balance of power among states themselves.

The European Union’s foremost goal is to diffuse and limit power, rather than centralise it. This approach is evident in the EU’s efforts to curtail excessive state intervention in trade, capital movement, and the flow of people. In monetary matters, the creation of an independent European Central Bank (ECB) following the Maastricht Treaty was aimed at imposing restraint on monetary debasement – a common strategy of overreaching states. The EU’s mechanisms are structured to balance and regulate, rather than to amass power over economic activities.

The extended quantitative easing (QE) programme undertaken by the ECB does, indeed, mark a hiatus in EU policy. However, this issue primarily arose from the fiscal irresponsibility of national governments, rather than from an overambitious EU. QE was initiated as a reaction to economic challenges at the national level, rather than as a product of EU expansionism. Recognising this distinction is key to understanding the EU’s actual role versus the impact of national policies that frequently dominate the conversation.

After Brexit, the United Kingdom’s policy direction did not follow the libertarian ideal of limited state intervention. Competencies that were once shared with or checked by European Union institutions have been reclaimed by the UK, but not delegated further to the regional or local level, let alone to individuals.

Brexit, contrary to being a move towards greater liberty, was primarily driven by the desire to protect the British welfare state. This goal conflicts with libertarian ideals, which favour minimal government intervention. In the context of the EU – an open economic space – maintaining a universal welfare system presented challenges. The withdrawal from the EU thus reflected a preference for state-driven solutions, diverging from a libertarian vision of a deregulated Britain with limited state duties.

Moreover, after leaving the EU, the UK continues to collaborate with it in areas often criticised by libertarians. This includes participation in European research funding and immigration control. Such ongoing involvement indicates a selective withdrawal from the EU. The UK retains connections in areas that challenge the libertarian goal of minimal state interference and free movement.

The EU’s method of centralising research funding is from a libertarian perspective an example of excessive bureaucratic control. In this system, decision-making regarding funding is concentrated in the hands of a select group of bureaucrats. These individuals necessarily lack the comprehensive understanding required to effectively distribute resources across a wide spectrum of research areas. The absence of an efficient economic calculation mechanism results in a politically motivated allocation of funds. Typically, this favours projects that are sympathetic to government intervention, while neglecting research that questions its merits. The UK’s decision to maintain its involvement in this framework post-Brexit is indicative of a state-centric approach, which deviates from the anticipated libertarian path.

When examining the outcomes of Brexit through a libertarian lens, there is a noticeable divergence from the expected results. Libertarians had hoped for a reduction in state involvement, greater economic freedom, and a move towards decentralised power. However, the reality has been quite different, marked by state control and policies that contradict libertarian ideals. This situation underscores the importance of critically re-evaluating the libertarian viewpoint on Brexit and understanding its implications.

A reassessment of the European Union’s role in the aftermath of Brexit highlights its capacity as a stabilising agent against excessive state control, especially in economic matters. The EU’s policies governing trade and human mobility, while not flawless, act to curb the solitary powers of individual member states. In the wake of Brexit, the United Kingdom shifted even further away from the libertarian ideal of minimal governmental intervention in these areas.

The Brexit saga offers essential insights for the development of libertarian policies. It illustrates the challenges of detaching state authority from international cooperation and underscores the dangers of augmented state centralisation in the quest for national sovereignty. Libertarians should heed these lessons in their future policy proposals, emphasising a better comprehension of international affairs and the delicate equilibrium between national self-governance and the restraining influence of supranational organisations like the EU.

Currently, the discussion surrounding the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights is becoming increasingly critical. Should the UK decide to withdraw, it would likely lead to a more extreme stance in the state’s policies towards migrants, as well as cause potential disruption in the decentralised judicial competencies within the UK.

In retrospect, the libertarian argument supporting Brexit appears to have been fundamentally flawed in its understanding of the European Union’s nature and functions. This misunderstanding has contributed to an increased centralisation of power within the UK and to policies that contradict libertarian principles. These developments highlight the need for a re-evaluation of libertarian views on national sovereignty and international economic cooperation, particularly in a context where state regulation is almost without limits.

As libertarians reassess the lessons from Brexit, the priority should be to formulate policies that truly embody minimal state intervention and promote individual freedoms. This requires an analysis of international cooperation dynamics and the possible unintended effects of withdrawing from cooperative frameworks. A key aspect of the libertarian perspective should involve acknowledging the importance of the vertical separation of power and the role of checks and balances that states can exert on one another.


Dr Emmanuel Comte is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

1 thought on “Why Brexit was a mistake, from a libertarian perspective”

  1. Posted 30/01/2024 at 13:12 | Permalink

    Just because Brexit didn’t signify a transition towards a more libertarian approach to politics (was it ever going to, as long as we continue with the 2-party system where both parties are corporate socialists?) – I don’t think this means that leaving the EU was the wrong decision, if you are a libertarian with the viewpoints that you summarised in paragraph 2.
    The EU project will undoubtedly continue towards its objectives of regulation and control, and the UK outside the EU will probably continue along a similar path. But at least we now *technically* have the ability to vote us out of that trajectory. Plus, saying that the EU’s function isn’t to centralise control – but to limit state control – is still an example of a super-government’s overreach that is fundamentally at odds with the libertarian approach.
    You can convince me that Brexit hasn’t delivered a more domestic libertarian kind of politics, but it will take a lot to convince me that Remaining in the EU would have been the libertarian preference in the long-term.

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