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Brexit, borders, and leader(ship) relations

RSA Blog
RSA Blog England Europe United Kingdom

To read the full paper on Brexit disruption and transborder leadership, click here.


Across borders in the UK and mainland Europe, relationship-building activity that aims to stimulate problem solving and the co-creation of innovative projects and programmes has been a long-standing and important feature of city and regional development.


Grand challenges and leadership relations

However, the strategic conditions for transborder cooperation and development at the sub-national scale are now being adversely impacted by emerging and acute ‘grand challenges’ across economy, society, and the environment. The leadership tasks associated with the ongoing COVID-19 health pandemic, climate change and net zero energy transformations, the continued expansion of the digital economy, migration flows across European and Mediterranean borders, the wider geo-political implications of the war in Ukraine are all putting severe pressure on sub-national leadership relations. We should be in no doubt, these ‘new’ complex cross-border challenges are testing city and regional leaders.

When it comes to ‘doing’ transborder cooperation and development between England and the EU – and to transborder policy, programme, and project outcomes more generally – making and sustaining ‘good’ human relations matters. The character of city and regional development leaders also matters, as does what it is that leaders ‘do’ in these settings, and how they go about ‘doing’ it…. In other words, how those in formal and informal leadership roles relate to one another across borders shapes city and regional development processes and outcomes in these very distinctive spaces.


Collaborative learning for shared policy challenges

Our own recent research into the ‘actual and real’ experiences of city and regional development leaders in England suggests that investing in good quality open-ended pan-European dialogue is essential to overcoming problematic relational legacies of Brexit. At times, the enduring turbulence of Brexit at the national and supranational scale has threated to undermine the important work of those in leadership roles working at the sub-national transborder scale. Our research findings call for leaders across England’s cities and regions to continue to invest, and engage in, non-prejudicial conversations ‘of equals’ with their European partners for the purpose of collaborative learning, exploring, and creating – to help shape ‘for good’ the next generation of mutually beneficial solutions to complex and shared policy challenges across economy, society, and environment.

Our research also suggests that England’s city and regional development leaders can make creative use of their many political, business, friendship, and family ‘back channels’ in Brussels – and more widely across European locations – to influence, and to learn from the experiences that continental economic development policy and practice has to offer. They will need to focus on key partner territories and priority knowledge topics and themes where mutual benefits can be achieved with more limited resources available for sub-national transnational knowledge exchange and learning than existed in the pre-Brexit era.


Continued challenges

However, re-energising UK-European transborder relationship building activity post-Brexit is not without challenges and obstacles. The Brexit process has highlighted that not everyone at the centre of UK government and politics has been convinced of the merits of negotiating difference and diversity, and of co-creating knowledge and learning opportunities at the sub-national scale, through an open-minded ‘dialogue(s) of equals’.

Our research implies that if England’s cities and regions are to be helped at a time of continuing austerity to benefit from easy and ready exchanges of knowledge and learning from across Europe’s many different types of territorial frontiers and boundaries – then superior ways of leadership being and acting that have predominated in some parts of UK politics and central government through the early phase of the Brexit experience, need now also to change.



John Gibney joined the University of Birmingham following an influential career in city, regional and cross-border economic development in the UK and mainland Europe. He has developed and contributed to a wide range of original and impactful research and consultancy projects for European, national, and city-regional clients. John has published widely on the topic of leadership in city and regional development. He continues to research, write, and teach around the themes of transnational/trans-border leadership in Europe; and contemporary city and regional (place) leadership. He was a founding member of the Regional Studies Association (ReSA) international research network on “Leadership in Urban and Regional Development”. John retired in autumn 2022 and is now an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Business School. He is currently the (European area) convenor of the international research network on ‘Leadership and Governance in Transnational City & Regional Development’.


Joyce Liddle is professor of Public Leadership & Enterprise, Director, Research & Innovation, Newcastle Business School, UK. Was Professor of Public Management & Leadership, Aix-Marseille Université, France.  A graduate and postgraduate of the Universities of Durham and Warwick, Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Science, UK JUC, and Regional Studies Assoc.  Researches in regional and local leadership and governance, partnerships and entrepreneurship, Member of six international Editorial Boards, Chair, EAB of IJPSM, UK editor, Local Economy. Co- editor, Emerald’s Annual Critical Perspectives in International PM. Visiting Prof at various international universities.  Published in most notable regional and public policy and management journals; author of 15 books, 200 articles, 25 chapters and guest editor of 20 special issues.


John Shutt is Professor of Public Policy and Management at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, United Kingdom. He was visiting Professor in 2020 to the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Amsterdam Campus of Northumbria University and was previously a Visiting professor at the Zhejiang Merchants Development institute Zhejiang School of management, Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou, China for 2015-2018.



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