Futures Drifting Apart: Brexit, the Crisis of the European Project, and the Power of Exhausted Promises

Lisa Suckert

The case of Brexit exemplifies a growing rejection of “the European project” among broad sections of the population. While explanations of this development often point to the EU’s lack of input and output legitimacy, the present study considers the role of exhausted promises as a key to understanding the diminishing appeal of the EU. Taking the example of Brexit, it adopts a perspective that is geared towards actors’ perceptions of the future. It explores how the promises and expectations associated with the EU have changed since 1975 and how this change is patterned. Drawing on theories on the exhaustion of modernity, it identifies four features that it assumes undermine the “promissory appeal” of the European institutions: the individualization of imagined futures; the loss of perceived agency over the future; the perception of the future as a return to the past; and the increasing stratification of future expectations. The development of these features is explored for the United Kingdom using a mixed-methods approach that integrates historical campaign material and longitudinal survey data. A comparative analysis of further EU countries shows to what extent these features are uniquely British or also indicative of the wider EU crisis.

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