The Brexit referendum and the future of the EU

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Political ideologies

Dr Nicholas Startin is Senior Lecturer in French and European Politics in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the European Ideas Network’s (EIN) annual summer school in Croatia. The EIN is a centre-right think-tank which promotes new thinking on the key challenges facing the countries of the EU. The title of my talk, ‘The Future of the EU’, was scheduled for exactly one week after the announcement of the Brexit referendum result. Inevitably events dictated both my pitch as well as the mood of the delegates.

The EIN is sponsored by the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest transnational group in the European Parliament (EP), and the summer school was attended by a significant rump of the EPP’s MEPs. The group comprises centre-right MEPs from across the member states and historically it has had, and still retains, a pro-EU outlook. It is the home of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former and would-be next French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as current President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk. The British Conservative party famously withdrew from the group following the European elections in 2009 and set up the smaller, more EU-critical grouping called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). As a result of this development my presence at the summer school as a British national, which took place in the aptly named city of Split, was something of a novelty in the aftermath of the referendum result. It was fascinating to witness the reaction of delegates, who, like myself, were still coming to terms with the result and its potential consequences for the future of the European project.

The rollercoaster of Brexit

I began my talk by giving an overview of the roller coaster ride the seven days since the referendum result had been from a UK perspective – both the Conservatives and Labour embroiled in leadership crises, the UK potentially disuniting, the markets in turmoil and a general sense that nobody really knew what was to follow! To provide some context I examined some of the supply and demand-side variables that had shaped the outcome of the referendum (see Startin 2015) and focused primarily on the polarised nature of the two campaigns.

The ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign was almost wholly built around the perceived economic benefits of UK membership of the EU, based on the assumption that the economic growth and jobs vital to the future of the UK economy would only continue while a member. In spite of the backing of major economic and financial organisations such the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in isolation the so-called ‘rational choice’ argument posited by the Remain campaign did not prove sufficient to win the argument. Built more or less singularly around the status quo, the one dimensional pitch of the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign failed to make the emotional case for the EU. Beyond the economic argument there was scant mention of the EU’s perceived benefits be they minor, such as the abolition of mobile phone roaming charges, or major, like the fact that there has been no military conflict between any member state since its formation!

The ‘Vote Leave’ campaign was also largely one dimensional in approach but was centred on the issue of immigration. In spite of the tragic death of the Labour MP Jo Cox one week before the plebiscite, the ‘Take back control’ slogan utilised by the Leave campaign gained significant traction in the closing stages. It was buoyed by the front-page bombardment approach of three of the major tabloids – The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express – all of whom focused their major rationale for voting leave around the theme of migration. False claims that Turkey would soon join the EU and constant reminders of a potential rise in net EU migration to the UK (as the consequence of staying in the EU) saturated their front pages in the build-up to the referendum.

The ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign failed to make a cogent case for some of the positive benefits of EU migration and this allowed Vote Leave to take ownership of this most salient issue. In the context of the refugee crisis and against the backdrop of the terrible events of 2015 and 2016 in Paris and Brussels, the issues of immigration and security had become intrinsically linked. A major flaw of the Remain campaign was that, in the face of the tabloid bombardment, it failed to differentiate between Freedom of Movement and the Schengen passport-free zone, and to robustly emphasise that the UK is not part of the latter. Freedom of Movement, in terms of its perceived benefits for UK citizens, was largely ignored and should have been pitched in a more positive light. In contrast to immigration, which was owned by Vote Leave as an issue, the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign failed to take ownership of their flagship issue – the so-called economic, rational choice argument. Vote Leave focused to great effect on the £350 million a week they claimed the EU was costing the UK.

The generational and socioeconomic cleavages of Brexit

Beyond the immediate political uncertainty created by the referendum result in the UK, the vote revealed two major divisions which were part of a wider political malaise facing Europe’s political elites, namely generational and socioeconomic cleavages. According to a YouGov poll on the eve of the referendum 75% of 18-24s who voted did so for Remain, which was in contrast to the 61% of over-65s who voted leave. Significantly though according to Sky News data the turnout was only 36% among the under-25s compared to 83% among the over-65s, raising significant questions about the impact of the polarised nature of electoral participation on the actual result itself (see Speed 2016)[i]. With 82% of 16- and 17-year-olds saying they would have voted to Remain (if like their counterparts in the 2014 Scottish referendum they had been given the franchise), this only served to underline the glaring generational gap on the issue of EU membership and to foster a notion that the younger generation had been ‘sold down the river’ by their parents and grandparents[ii]. In the immediate aftermath of the result a petition was signed by over 4 million people (many of whom were under 25 and had not voted) calling for a debate in parliament to discuss the possibility of a second referendum[iii].

The second cleavage underlined by the result of the referendum was the glaring socio-economic gap in terms of the vote. Both demographic polling data and geographic data from the referendum itself would appear to suggest clear lines of division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. According to polls both prior to and post the referendum the ‘leave’ vote was significantly skewed towards voters with low levels of income which, as Nick Pearce observed, pitted ‘working-class voters in post-industrial towns and cities, deprived seaside resorts and the agri-business rural areas of England and Wales, against the young, middle-class and-university-educated cosmopolitan centres.’ (Pearce 2016)

There is a certain irony in the fact that it was the country among the EU 28 that has arguably the least collective understanding of the EU (see Eurobarometer data on the so-called ‘knowledge deficit’) that was the first to vote on whether to remain in the EU, since the UK itself voted to stay in the European Community in 1975. While there is a long-standing debate over whether people actually believe what they read in newspapers and while generalisations about the socio-demographic profile of ‘tabloid readers’ should be treated with caution, the link between the ‘knowledge gap’ and negative attitudes towards the EU is nevertheless well documented (Startin 2015). There is no doubt that the UK tabloid press exerts an influence over how the EU is framed in the UK which is unrivalled in other EU nations (Startin 2015). Certainly, the front-page bombardment approach of the aforementioned tabloids intensified in the build-up to the referendum at a time when many voters remained unsure of which way to cast their vote. There is no doubt that the influence of the tabloids was a significant ‘supply-side’ influence which shaped the outcome of the referendum result.

What next for Europe? The future of the EU

What does Brexit mean for the future of the EU? First, I believe that the referendum result will be remembered as a symbolic turning point in the history of European integration which will serve to galvanise Eurosceptic voices across the continent, with Far Right Front National leader Marine Le Pen already calling for a referendum in France on EU membership and similar opinions being espoused by other populist leaders such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Euroscepticism has become increasingly embedded and mainstreamed across the EU member states since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the 2004 Big-bang enlargement and the subsequent economic and refugee crises. Although a British invention, Euroscepticism is not a uniquely British phenomenon! The EU must, as a matter of urgency, learn lessons from the result. Its political elites have historically been slow to respond to dissenting voices in spite of the fact that Eurobarometer data has indicated for a number of years that public support and trust for the EU has clearly declined across member states. EU elites have not sufficiently engaged with opponents of European integration: Eurosceptics, in some respects, are the equivalent of the opposition in a domestic political context.

Europe’s elites must acknowledge that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is now redundant in terms of recalibrating and re-energising the EU. Such an approach is more likely to continue to divide than to unite. There needs to be some recognition that the appetite for ‘ever closer union’ has waned in many nations and that the reform agenda (of which we hear so much) must be embraced as a matter of urgency if the EU is to survive this setback. While transparency, accountability and democracy remain the buzzwords which should drive the EU forward, it is vital that concrete reforms are enacted that Europe’s citizens would be able to interpret both in a positive light and as of direct benefit to them.

What would our priorities be if we were starting the European project afresh? I suggest the following potential areas the EU should consider in order to redress a growing sense of disillusionment among Europe’s citizens:

·         The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): Despite previous reform it is clear that in an EU of 28 (or potentially 27 post Brexit) the CAP saps too much of the overall EU budget. How can it be right that what was set up essentially as a self-preservation mechanism to provide self-sufficiency in foodstuffs in the aftermath of the Second World War should, nearly 60 years on, still account for 40% of the EU budget when agriculture is only responsible for about 2% of EU nation states’ GDP? Could this money not be spent more wisely elsewhere on policies which affect Europe’s citizens more directly like the Globalisation Adjustment fund or on more robust attempts at combatting Europe’s chronic youth unemployment than currently exist under the umbrella of Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion?

·         The European Commission: The EU’s reputation for a lack of transparency, accountability and democracy stems in no small part from the image of the Commission. Trimming back both the size and role of the Commission would certainly help to restore the EU’s tarnished image. More visibility and accountability within this institution would help to re-assert that the EU is indeed an intergovernmental project where actual power lies with the Heads of Government of the European Council. Linked to this, developing further the legislative role of the European Parliament should also be part of a recalibration of the EU’s institutions.

·         Freedom of Movement (FOM): Although enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty and a pillar of the Single Market, FOM, more than any other issue, has created tensions across the member states. While this is a highly contentious issue – as the principle of the FOM is core to the European project – it continues to be a galvanising force across the EU for Eurosceptics. The EU must face up to this as challenges to the FOM show no signs of receding. A mechanism must be found which gives nation states some flexibility in managing the impact of migration on their labour markets.

In my concluding remarks I re-emphasised that the EU must take some responsibility for the position in which it finds itself and acknowledge the criticisms surrounding its transparency, flexibility and democracy. Communicating its message more effectively will also be key in the months and years ahead. Back in 2014 I argued that ‘overcoming the ‘knowledge deficit’ is perhaps the major challenge facing the EU and ought to be one of the overarching priorities of Jean-Claude Juncker’s new European Commission.’ (Startin 2014) This must continue to remain a key priority. One of the key lessons from the Brexit referendum result, beyond the need for the reform agenda to finally kick in, is that the ‘knowledge gap’ on EU affairs is a potent force which populist parties will continue to exploit. Whether Brexit means Brexit (and only time will tell whether it does while Article 50 remains unlocked) the referendum result underlines that the European Union is at a major crossroads. A failure on behalf of Europe’s elites to respond to this warning shot has the potential to lead to the unravelling of the European project.


[i] This turn-out figure has since been disputed by evidence compiled by the London School of Economics (LSE); the YouGov data nevertheless raises significant questions about the impact of electoral participation among young voters and its influence on the actual result (Helm 2016: 3)
[ii] According to a poll by The Student Room 16- and 17-year-olds having the vote would have led to a Bremain victory –
[iii] ‘A House of Commons debate on a petition calling for a second EU referendum will take place on Monday, 5 September. The Commons Petitions Committee confirmed the record-breaking online petition, signed by more than four million people, will be put forward for debate. The petition, which was set up by a Brexit supporter before the referendum was held, called for the Government to annul the results if the Remain or Leave vote won by less than 60 per cent on a turnout of less than 75 per cent.’ (Osborne 2016)



(2016) ‘EU referendum: How the results compare to the UK's educated, old and immigrant populations’,
Helm, T. (2016) ‘New figures reveal young people turned out in high numbers for EU poll’, The Observer, 10 July, p:7.

Osborne, S. (2016) ‘Second EU referendum petition to be debated in Parliament after receiving more than 4m signatures’,
Pearce, N. (2016) ‘Labour is caught in a bind between its metropolitan and working-class heartlands’,
Speed, B. (2016) ‘How did different demographic groups vote in the EU referendum’

Startin, N. (2014) ‘From the margins to the mainstream: ‘Europe’ as an issue for the Radical Right’ Networking European Citizenship Education Policy brief, Vienna.
Startin, N. (2015) Have we reached a tipping point? The mainstreaming of Euroscepticism in the UK. International Political Science Review, 36 (3), pp. 311-323.
Startin, N. (2016) ‘To be or not to be?’ ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ and other clichés: the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership’

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Political ideologies


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