Tragic Divorce or WWII? Understanding Brexit Through Metaphors


In March, Prime Minister Theresa May sent “a letter of divorce” to the European Union, formally announcing the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU. May’s letter signals the end of a “tempestuous marriage” and begins what many predict will be “a tortuous two-year divorce.”

“We already miss you,” said EU Council President Donald Tusk in response. Days earlier, Londoners gathered outside Westminster to celebrate the EU’s 60th anniversary with signs declaring “they don’t love EU like I love EU.”

Metaphors of marriage and divorce have dominated the discourse around Brexit, giving us a vocabulary to describe the unprecedented events. How else do we talk about the breakup of a decades-long legal partnership between two independent parties, (theoretically) founded on shared values and economic benefits?

But metaphors don’t just help us describe events; they also shape the way we interpret them. Depending on our political sensibilities, we may see the U.K. as the aggrieved partner of a harsh and controlling EU, or cast Europe in the role of the abandoned spouse who aches in unrequited love. When we rely on these familiar tropes, we may see quibbles over the next two years as signs of divorce negotiations gone sour. We may argue over the fairness of the financial settlement as we would a divorce bill, or see grumbles over Gibraltar like an emerging custody battle.

This is why May has been trying to counter the divorce discourse: she has urged her colleagues in the House of Commons to avoid the term because “very often when people get divorced, they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards.” On this, perhaps, May is right: if we use the language of divorce, what prospects can we have for reconciliation? Will it make it difficult for us to believe it’s possible, as May hopes, for the U.K. to become Europe’s “best friend” after the break-up?

Already, the challenges of Brexit negotiations are being described as bitter divorce talks, with newspapers across Europe warning “divorce could turn ugly” and “divorce hurts.” By invoking a metaphor of broken vows and irreconcilable differences, how can we expect the two parties to come together and strike a deal that won’t leave one or both sides grief-stricken, childless, or embittered?

Though May voices opposition to the dangerous divorce metaphor, members of her cabinet have put forth more crude and troubling analogies. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, invoked what is perhaps the most potent metaphor in the European psyche: “If our country can deal with World War II, it can deal with this,” he said. Here, Davis invites us to envision a continent overrun by dictatorship and the British Empire rising to confront it. In this rendition, the U.K. during Brexit emerges victorious from a European Union in ruins.

Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, extended this metaphor, cautioning the EU not to “administer punishment beatings” against the U.K. “in the manner of some World War II movie.” In this film scene, the U.K. plays the persecuted captive, and Europe is cast as a Nazi prison guard. Perhaps Johnson and Davis see themselves as the movie’s lead actors: valiant, modern-day Churchills. But if the British leadership waxes nostalgic for a golden age of bloody European conflict, can they also wish for amicable U.K.-EU relations?

Just before Brexit was set in motion, Member of Parliament (MP) Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested another sensational metaphor: Brexit as Britain’s resurrection. Making explicit reference to an Easter Sunday hymn, Rees-Mogg proclaims, “British democracy is reborn.” Brexit is not a break-up or a world war: it’s Britain rising from the dead. “Article 50 is upon us, so rejoice,” he urges.

Though the Eurosceptic MP aims to strike a celebratory tone, his metaphor also carries more sinister connotations. As a Christ figure, the U.K. is Son of God and savior, as well as a nation betrayed and tortured. So what does that make the European Union? Judas, who betrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Or Pontius Pilate, who sentences Christ to be crucified?

Amid the uncertainty around the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, pundits, politicians, and the public have turned to simplistic metaphors—metaphors that have, in turn, exposed and perpetuated some of Europe’s greatest anxieties.

But with all parties seeking a constructive outcome, now is the time to think critically about the language we use. Instead of comparisons that paint Brexit as a broken marriage, a global war, or death and resurrection, we can choose, instead, words that reflect our hopes as well as our fears: words that enable greater nuance and expand the possibilities we can envision for the future.

Only then will we begin to imagine a peaceful and prosperous Europe.


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