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Despite leaving, the EU remains the UK’s significant, constitutive other. Even post-Brexit, the British sense of self is being claimed by defining the EU as ‘Other’. Naturally, since 2016, the character of this ‘Other’ has evolved. Following the referendum, and especially Brexit itself, the UK-EU relationship has undergone a transformation of redefining each/the other. One might have expected that, once the UK had left the EU, the mutual relationship would run more smoothly. Yet, the opposite has been the case.

Boris Johnson’s government was keen to pick fights with the EU and “regularly and deliberately spark arguments” with it. Since the UK (nominally and practically) left the EU on 31 December 2020, the mutual relationship has been marred by numerous tensions and conflicts. These have mostly revolved around the status of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Protocol which came to dominate the discourse on the EU and UK’s strained relationship. Other irritants included the UK’s access to EU scientific research programmes, including Horizon Europe, Copernicus, and the Earth observation programme among others, Covid-19 vaccines, and the scandal over the ambassadorial status of the EU’s representative in London. A closer analysis reveals that the government opted to discursively fuel, enhance and exacerbate the post-Brexit ‘othering’ process by systematically blaming the EU for various post-Brexit problems.

The intricate relationship between othering and blaming

The dialectic between blame and othering is complex and mutually reinforcing. While intricate at an individual or interpersonal level, this dynamic escalates significantly when translated to state-level interactions. Blame is amplified through official government discourse, media portrayal, and policy decisions. There are three main ways in which blame can function as a key aspect of the othering process. First, blame serves as a mechanism to reinforce the perceived differences and inferiority of the other. It can be wielded as a powerful tool to ‘otherise’ someone/something by assigning responsibility for negative outcomes or characteristics. Second, blame can be strategically employed to justify stigmatisation and “othering” stereotypes, employed to create a simplified and negative image of the other. By blaming the other for negative traits or behaviours, stereotypes are reinforced and the othering is, in turn, perpetuated. Third, by attributing blame, the otherer can maintain its sense of superiority and dominance, justify its treatment of the other, and delegitimise its concerns.

Blame-based othering of the EU in the case of Johnson’s government

All of this raises an intriguing question: how exactly did Johnson’s government, as the “otherer”, exploit blame and stereotypes to represent the EU as the “other”? I worked with a comprehensive dataset of the UK government’s pronouncements on the EU and Brexit between 1 January 2021 (the end of the transition period) and 6 September 2022 (the end of Johnson’s tenure as prime minister) collected from Gov.uk and Hansard to unearth what blame-based discourse topics the government mostly drew upon in order to otherise the EU. Let’s have a look at the key four topics:

The EU as a trouble-seeker

A key strategically invoked discourse topic purported that the EU created all bilateral troubles with the UK. It aimed to convey an image of the EU as a direct threat, with various identifications of this threat along the temporal past-to-future axis. First, blame was laid at the feet of the EU for constituting a present threat, by “disrupting” the delicate balance in Northern Ireland, “causing serious damage to research and development” and sparking “the difficulties we are facing”. Second, the EU was described as an anticipated, future threat, blamed for the expectedly harmful (but not yet materialised) consequences of its (in)actions that threatened to “disrupt everyday lives” and “create intolerable uncertainty”. This anticipatory blame was often articulated through the deployment of future tenses and conditional constructions, micro-linguistically reinforcing the EU’s role as a looming threat.

The EU as a solution-withholder

Another salient discourse topic assumed that the EU was unwilling to find a solution to problems. Unlike the previous topic, which emphasised the EU’s proactive role in instigating problems, this topic underscores the EU’s active resistance and obstructiveness. Substantively, this intentional lack of will mostly related to the EU’s rejection of the UK’s proposals, refusing to open the Northern Ireland protocol, withdrawing consent to more relaxed arrangements and declining to finalise the UK’s association to EU programmes. The discourse here was also dotted with references to the EU as having no practical justification for its stances — as in, “There is no practical reason for this delay”. The use of the phrase, “no practical reason”, subtly implies a lack of logic or sense in the EU’s actions, enhancing its characterisation as an “irrational” actor. Within this topic, the EU was also made guilty for its unwillingness to compromise, being accused of “coming up with its own plans for solutions within the framework of the existing protocol and presenting them to us, take it or leave it”.

The EU as an under-doer

Intimately related to the previous assumption was the frequently-reiterated topic of the EU doing too little to solve the dire post-Brexit situation. Yet, unlike the preceding topic that portrayed the EU as actively resistant, this discourse constructed the EU as passively inefficient. The EU was attributed blame for little progress, engaging only in “talks about talks”, as opposed to “a process that gets to the fundamentals” and “a constructive discussion”. This effectively conjured up an idea of the EU as misjudging the situation and inefficiently putting forward inadequate proposals.

The EU was also accused of unhelpfully spending time on unnecessary matters (as in “the European Union spent a bit too much time speculating on our intentions and not looking at actions and what we said” and delaying the solution(s). These delays, negligence, and limited responsiveness were then routinely articulated as causing “serious damage”. The term “serious damage” is a powerful emotive phrase, conveying not only the gravity of the situation but also attributing a level of harm that resonates with emotional responses.

The EU as an over-doer

In contrast to the previous topic, the EU was also constructed as an oppressive actor, unwelcomely interfering in domestic (British, or more specifically, Northern Irish) affairs. This interference was construed as unjustified and illegitimate, with the EU having no legitimate say in these matters (“[…] the Protocol represents a moment of EU overreach […] and therefore cannot reasonably last in its current form”) and overstepping its bounds. The lexical choice of words such as “overreach” paints the EU as intrusively overstepping its bounds, adding to the imagery of undue and unwelcome interference.

Critical assessment of the pros and cons of blame-based othering

Making use of various rhetorical and communication devices to construct the EU as the negative “Other” through blame was convenient for the UK government for a number of reasons. It served the important purpose of British self-validation and self-(re)assurance in the hard-to-navigate post-Brexit world. Crucially, it can be understood as a response to criticism that the government faced because of the adverse effects of Brexit (such as the aggravated situation in Northern Ireland, UK’s exclusion from EU scientific programmes, new bureaucracies etc.). Criticism of the EU also formed a solid basis for the government’s justification of its own – often controversial – (post-)Brexit decisions and policy responses (such as, for instance, introducing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill). Moreover, maintaining the political resonance of anti-EU sentiments has been a familiar and well-tested strategy, proving a winning election formula for the Conservative Party.

At the same time, however, exploiting the EU’s “otherness” through blame-generating language has come at a price. First, discursively solidifying the EU as the hostile international other was at odds with the UK’s official desire to build “a productive relationship with the EU”. Second, reinforcing the image of the EU as the negative, radical other contributed to further polarisation between the UK and the EU, and a normalisation of the antagonistic divide. As such, it eroded the UK’s capacity to cooperate with the EU and hampered a good working relationship. Third, feeding the EU’s othering has strongly contributed to the affective polarisation generated by Brexit-based identification, which has involved emotional commitment, affect, stereotyping, prejudice, and various evaluative biases. Finally, one should not forget the broader societal implications that blaming has, especially since it may “derail, obstruct or prevent public debates over certain policy issues”.   Consequently, the UK’s blame-driven othering has fostered a political environment where reconciliation and cooperation with the EU has become increasingly fraught.


Note: The above draws on the author’s published work in Discourse, Context & Media: Othering through blame: The EU as the blame target in the UK government’s post-Brexit rhetoric 

This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford. 



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