Small States and Institutional Change: the Lesson of Brexit

johny-vino-Ydpw_o7RKio-unsplashTomáš Weiss, Head of Department of European Studies and Jean Monnet Chair in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies at the Institute of International Studies, Charles University, Prague, argues that institutionalisation can empower small states. He also notes their dependence on institutions can also make them vulnerable to institutional change, this is exemplified through the case of Czechia in the EU.

This blog is part of our project on ‘Small States in the EU’ with the Scottish Centre on European Relations. 

Small states belong to the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world. Even when we disregard oil-dependent autocracies, the top ranks will be taken by small states, such as Luxembourg, Singapore and Ireland. To some extent, this success is the result of well-designed policies and strategies. It can also be dependent on favourable external factors and luck, such as geographical location, language spoken in the country, prosperous neighbours. A crucial factor in small states’ success, however, is international institutions.

Small states profit from the more stable and restrictive international order provided by international institutions. Generally, small states are believed to have minimal impact on global and regional affairs. They even struggle to survive and prosper, being often the first casualty of the great powers’ rivalry or their larger neighbour’s whims. Scholars ignored small states because they seemed to be irrelevant altogether. The bulk of the international relations literature deals with great powers; in European studies, a lot of work focuses on France, Germany and the United Kingdom. But in a stable international environment, ensured by strong international institutions, small states can proliferate and prosper.

Small states can even have a significant impact on international politics and policies. Particularly in the context of the European Union, scholars have taken pains to show that small states matter and how exactly they achieve their goals. Not having to worry about their everyday survival, small states are becoming smart states and punch above their weight. As a result, you ask Estonians if you want to know something about cybersecurity and you go to Sweden to learn about environmental policies. Many small states seem to look for their niche and then establish themselves as the critical interlocutor for other countries and European institutions. They often serve as honest brokers in stalled negotiations given their perceived little interest.

Small states remain structurally disadvantaged even in the most stable and favourable environment, however. They lack resources, both in terms of personnel and money. Particularly in the deeply institutionalised environment of the European Union, small states struggle to cover all negotiations and to produce good instructions in time. Their dependence on institutions makes them also sensitive to institutional changes, and they face the choice between integration and autonomy more painfully than large countries. That is why small states will actively participate in the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe and regard with suspicion large states’ initiatives in case they disrupt the institutional setting.

Our research on small state preparation for Brexit, which can also be considered a disruption of the institutional order, has shown that small states are sensitive to institutional change, but not necessarily in a conventional manner. On the case of Czechia, we studied the preparations at administrative and political levels for the looming Brexit between the referendum and the conclusion of the withdrawal agreement in autumn 2018. We focused on two policy areas, the internal market and the common security and defence policy, where Czech and British interests overlapped and Britain had been an essential Czech ally at the EU level.

The upcoming realignment of negotiation dynamics within the EU, caused by the departure of one of the most prominent players, compelled the Czechs to engage in hectic administrative preparations and reassessment of positions and coalitions. All small states in the EU undertook a similar procedure and, indeed, even the big ones had to adjust. Apart from the creation of a multi-sectoral administrative body to coordinate Czech positions in the upcoming negotiations, Czechia identified priorities for the Brexit process and started thinking about life after Brexit. In doing so, however, it defied the expectations that our knowledge of small states behaviour raises.

Small states are generally expected to be concerned by security issues. Due to their size and limited capabilities, their security is never granted, and they should react very sensitively to any change to the security environment. Brexit was about to cause such a change. The United Kingdom was one of the leaders of the European security and defence policy, being one of just two countries with full-spectrum military capabilities, and also being the country that blocked fast development in the area. With its departure, new initiatives and a profound change of the policy was to be expected. Moreover, security and defence belong to the more intergovernmental areas in the EU, where established rules and institutions restrict large countries less. Internal market, by contrast, is a highly supranational policy area with strong leadership by the Commission. There was no reason to expect any swift development there, especially with the Commission preoccupied with Brexit negotiations.

Nevertheless, Czechia ignored the CSDP area completely in its preparations for Brexit and invested much effort and thinking into the internal market. We explain this surprising behaviour by the institutional structure of the policy areas and the nature of the British departure. The UK will disappear from the single governance framework of the internal market completely. States that aligned with the UK position are therefore losing an important ally that cannot be substituted and they fear that their priorities will not be reflected at the EU level. The loose framework of security governance in Europe where various multilateral, minilateral and bilateral links often overlap will ensure that Britain will remain present even when outside of the EU. The rest of the countries do not feel that their situation will change significantly.

To sum up, institutions empower small states and protect them from whims of their larger neighbours. Weaker institutionalisation means less security and influence for small states. But stronger institutionalisation also creates more dependence, and when things change, small states may find themselves in a slightly uncomfortable position with no safety net available. As Brexit shows, you cannot have your cake and eat it after all.


Tomáš Weiss, is Head of Department of European Studies and Associate Professor, as well as, Jean Monnet Chair in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies at the Institute of International Studies, Charles University, Prague.


This post was originally published by the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER).

This blog is published in the context of the SCER’s 2019-20 research programme on ‘small states in the EU, lessons for and from Scotland’. This is a project with, and supported by, the UCL European Institute’s Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence Programme 2019-2022.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Image credit: Photo by Johny Vino on Unsplash

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