BOSS Blog 4: The Brexit Crisis, a cultural reading

Britain's Brexit crisis on BBC – a cultural reading

Gert Jan Hofstede 2019 07 20

On 18 July 201, BBC One Panorama brought ‘The Brexit crisis’, a documentary in which Nick Robinson talks with many of the proponents in the unfolding Brexit story ( This documentary could be a good classroom exercise on cultural differences in North-West Europe. It is worth seeing. Brexit negotiators Michel Barnier from France and David Davies, EC Secretary General Martin Selmayr, EC Vice-President Frans Timmermans, and a host of British politicians are heard. They are surprisingly candid to Robinson.

Forget Netflix. Forget soap operas. This is the real world.


Pyramids, Machines, Markets, and Families

For those who know Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, the "Brexit Crisis" documentary is a window on a catalogue of European cultures. As background, you could revisit chapter 9 ‘Pyramids, Machines, Markets, and Families: organizing across nations’ in Cultures & Organizations: Software of the Mind 3rd ed. 2010.

A tiny bit of theory

The four metaphors of organization in society, "Pyramid, Machine, Market, Family", result from drawing a two-by-two matrix of Power Distance against Uncertainty Avoidance. Here is a simplified, interpreted version.

The figure shows only two dimensions of culture. A third one is indicated by the oval around the Netherlands.

  • The British, masculine, have a ‘winner takes all’ market.
  • The Netherlands, with their feminine, long-term oriented culture, are more of a village market: everyone is supposed to be trustworthy, for the village’s future.
  • Germany is a structured, well-oiled machine;
  • France is a pyramid.


Relational logic

When I watched the ‘Brexit Crisis’ interviews, it struck me that each of the proponents uses a relational logic that fits with their country’s position in the figure. To summarize:

  • The British are obsessed with winning. They enjoy a good match, for the heck of it. Within their political party, across parties, and between the UK and the EU. Things are cast as matches.
    I suppose that most of you readers of this Blog are familiar with the dynamics between May, Johnson, Raab, Corbyn, DUP and others. To take a less well-known instance, on a visit to David Davies in the UK by Michel Barnier, who is an old-fashioned senior Frenchman, Davies’ staff made Barnier sit in an uncomfortable chair on purpose and gave him a script he was not prepared for, also on purpose. I know this because Davies’ staff member gloated to Robinson in the documentary about making Barnier look like a fool.
  • The Germans want a decentralized, but structured EU. Selmayr was clear about this in his interview with Robinson, and when Robinson suggested he might be out to humiliate the British, he said that he considered himself a friend to the UK in trying to engineer this.
  • The French want a strong centre for the EU. They want no disobedience in the classroom. Barnier was explicit that ‘centralization is important’. When Robinson suggested that the UK negotiators might chuck away the 600-page Brexit deal that Barnier helped make, he riposted sternly “Then they will have to face the consequences”.
  • The Dutch want all EU villagers to behave in a trustworthy manner. Frans Timmermans told Robinson that he had doubts whether Boris Johnson “was genuine. I have the impression that he is playing games”.

So what?

This should be about the future of Europe in the world. If the partners in this process keep forgetting to look at themselves through a cultural lens, they will go on with their needless bickering. At least, that is how this Dutchman looks at it. I am afraid that more bickering is unfortunately a safe bet. Meanwhile Trump, Putin and Xi are laughing their heads off.