Why Britain voted to leave the EU – a view from the outside and initial conclusions



On 23 June, more than 17 million British citizens of the European Union voted for Brexit.

Why did they decide to do so?

The answer to this question is quite important for the future of the European Union and for the future of the United Kingdom. In my view, the reasons for this vote go far deeper than a protest against migration, the globalization or a so-called “austerity” policy of the current Tory government. I think the result should be analysed and discussed in the context of Britain’s long history towards continental Europe and its consequences. So, here is a view of the referendum’s outcome in eight reasons, a long read.

1) Britain’s history

Many people in Britain seem to feel quite uneasy about political influence from continental Europe. The roots of this instinctive repugnance go back deep into the country’s past.

Since at least Henry VIII had split with the Pope during Reformation and founded the Church of England in 1534, the repugnance did start officially. For centuries then, English and British history was marked by attempts to fight off attacks by the Continent: the launch of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain in 1804, and the threat posed by Nazi Germany in 1940. At the same time, the United Kingdom evolved under English supremacy and the British Empire was on the rise. Numerous peoples of the world were subjected to British rule and colonisation. The British themselves, however, have not been conquered by any other nation since the beginning of the last millennium. During its rise, the British Empire tried to keep continental Europe at bay, always aiming at the balancing of powers on the Continent. To meet this goal, it was no rare thing for the Empire itself to go to war against other European powers. Over centuries, this allowed Britain to stand tall as an independent “nation”, even though sometimes it might not have been possible without the support provided by other peoples. This history is an integral part of the identity of many British people.

The Leave campaign’s rather simple catchphrase “Let’s take back control” has fuelled the myth of nationalism, saying that it would be in the United Kingdom’s best future interest to seize its own destiny by giving up its participation in the European Union. Implicitly, that’s how the campaign referred to the great and positive memory of Britain’s past when asking people to make an important and profound decision about Britain’s future in the 21st century. It certainly helped them that the United Kingdom has never experienced the same sinister effects of nationalism as many other European countries.

2) Lacking the willingness to form a political union

Against the background of this history, the basic idea of Winston Churchill’s speech made in Zurich in 1946 did not come as a surprise. In keeping with the tradition of the British Empire holding the Continent at bay and just assured of his own strength following Nazi Germany’s defeat, he called for the creation of the United States of Europe, consequently excluding the United Kingdom. In his view, the United Kingdom’s role was to be the one of a “friend and sponsor” of such a new Europe. That’s how the United Kingdom unfortunately did not become one of the founding members of what is today the European Union.

When Britain later joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, it was largely for economic reasons. And that was how it was sold to the British people in the 1975 referendum.

A few years later, the British were encouraged and strengthened in their belief by Margaret Thatcher. She had championed the European Single Market but she was a fierce opponent of a political union. At the latest from her Bruges speech of 1988 the rejection of a politically united Europe became her official policy. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” And Mrs. Thatcher took a similar stance when speaking to the British Parliament in October 1990. “No. No. No,” she famously told the Commons after explaining that the Commission is a “non-elected” body. Even then, this statement was deliberately defamatory since there have been good historical reasons for the way the Commission was appointed. However, this deeply entrenched prejudice still persists. This is despite the fact that, in the meantime, the President of the Commission is elected as a “Spitzenkandidat” via the European Elections and that all nominated Commissioners have to be confirmed by the directly elected Members of the European Parliament.

The understanding of the European Union mainly as a common market and the refusal to allow a stronger common political union have been also the main reasons for the British opt-outs from European Union laws, its rejection of the Schengen Agreement and the single currency.

On the other hand, this is why, today, the British people are seen by many fellow European citizens as a cherry-picking “nation” – and not without good reason. It seems as if the British government and its people too often put their narrow state nationalism above common European interests and unity. To be fair, also some other nations have done so in the past far too often.

Boris Johnson revived this notion in his Leave campaign. And his demagogic attacks on the European Union took this idea even further. To achieve his goal, he not only repeated Margaret Thatcher’s dictum of a European super-state, he exaggerated it by comparing the European Union to Hitler’s plans to dominate Europe. This ugly comparison is as absurd as the comparison of the European Union with the USSR, which you can also hear from quite many British people.

And even Conservative leader David Cameron’s IN-campaign got stuck in Britain’s economic fixation of the European Union. He mainly focused on the economic risks arising from Britain’s EU exit. But he missed out on a clear line of argument setting out the assets of a united Europe – with Britain being part of it. Assets, for example, that are so obvious for most Eastern Europeans they do not even need explaining.

However, when Robert Schuman set out his concrete plan in his famous declaration in 1950, only five years after World War II, it was very clear that it was a political union he had in mind. This idea has always been and will always be at the heart of the European Union. Economic cooperation has been and will be a means to an end: no more, but no less. That’s how the European Union and its predecessors have delivered over 60 years of peace, stability, and prosperity for its member states and their citizens. And for the future, the Union is simply the best guarantee to protect the shared values and common interests of all Europeans in the 21st century.

It was a misguided idea cherished by many Brits over decades that the European Union is not much more than just a Common Market – an idea that has now come to its end. The outcome of the referendum has shown the limits of this misperception.

3) Missing to develop a stronger European identity

Both, British history and the way the European Union has been presented by many political leaders to the British people over decades have resulted in a lack of European identity. Too many people in the UK see themselves as “British only”, – or even less just as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. And too many people in the UK think that there are just the others, the Europeans, somewhere out on the Continent.

So it is even harder for the people in Britain to relate to the purpose and the objectives of the European Union. The statement made by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph two days after the referendum is an eloquent testimony as to this British view on Europe. “I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe-and always will be,” he said. This is the new British nationalism and selfishness in their purest form: making a commitment to Europe for obvious reasons of fact, but refusing to work together to achieve a better common political union. And at the same time still seeking to benefit from the European Single Market while not willing to accept the freedom of movement of its citizens.

All this is even more astonishing as the United Kingdom itself is nothing more than a political union. And what is quite striking is the fact that the United Kingdom was formed under English supremacy while it was the free will of the European member states and their governments after the war to establish the European Union.

Then, in turn, it is no longer a surprise that many Scots are rather part of the European Union and its institutions in Brussels than being ruled by London. More than one million people in Scotland want to leave the European Union. But 60% more Sots (1.6 million) voted for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom in the Scottish independence referendum held in 2014.

History, the leadership of political leaders and also national newspapers in Britain have played a potent role in nourishing the famous British euroscepticism among large parts of the population over the last decades.

Now, it goes even further to xenophobic attacks of fellow European citizens. One of the lowest points of these developments was certainly reached when, right after the referendum, some Britons attacked some fellow Polish citizens of the Union. These attacks are even more incomprehensible as many Polish airmen fought during World War II in the Battle of Britain against the Nazis. Such xenophobic attacks are downright embarrassing for the reputation of Great Britain in the European Union, to which it still belongs. The British government should condemn these attacks more publicly, investigate them faster and punish the perpetrators consequently. And the Presidents of the European Union should urge the British government publicly to take a tougher stance against these hate crimes in order to protect now fellow citizens of the European Union in the United Kingdom.

4) Speaking badly of the European institutions, its representatives and officials over decades

So there is Britain’s history, the way Britain’s political leaders have communicated with their citizens on European issues and the lacking sense of European identity. All this, in turn, has led to a lack of respect for the common European institutions, their representatives and officials by many British people. Again, the British press has played a paramount role in this.

It is common practice in Britain these days to speak in extremely derogatory terms about the European Union. Commissioners, MEPs, and European civil servants are usually called “Eurocrats” to undermine or diminish their great dedication and their enormous efforts to work for a better and united Europe. Britain’s government, however, seems to never miss an opportunity to keep preaching about the quality of its own public service.

Furthermore, the origins of many problems within the EU seem to be frequently entirely misjudged in the mind of the British public. It is not so much the Parliament or the Commission that make it hard to find rapid solutions in the EU but most often the lack of unity among its 28 member states. And in the past, the UK played a large part in this disunity and in the blockade of further political reforms. And most often, it is national issues that are at the root of serious European problems. Examples include Greece and the failure of its political elite lacking the ability to reform their country, Spain and the countless bad investment decisions on real estate or Cyprus and Ireland with their inflated banking industry.

Particularly popular among British people is the prejudice of an anti-democratic EU. However, Britain’s own electoral system has led to the fact that four million British voters ended up with only one (!) of the 650 seats in the House of Commons – as was the case in the General Elections in 2015. Currently, 12 % of the votes cast in Britain are represented only by less than 1% of seats in the House of Commons. The irony of the situation is that it is the UKIP voters that find themselves on the receiving end of this misrepresentation. As if that was not enough, the other half of the Parliament, the House of Lord, is not elected at all by the British people but appointed by the monarch. And last but not least the head of state itself is a hereditary monarch. It might do the UK’s image no harm if some Britons were to show more restraint when it comes to criticism of the democratic legitimacy of the European Union and its representatives. Those would do well to first of all engage to reform Britain’s own electoral legislation.

For decades, political leaders in Britain have set a bad example: They showed evident disdain for the European Union, their representatives, and officials. Major parts of the British press has jumped on the bandwagon by pushing this trend even further, making false accusations, disparaging comments and now even displaying overt xenophobia.

Overall, there is a serious lack of judgement and respect on the part of quite some people in Great Britain. It comes at a high price – a price, unfortunately all the British people have started to pay since 23 June.

5) How British governments contributed to the outcome of the referendum

In addition to the failure of Britain’s political elite to increase the confidence in and the respect for the common institutions and its personnel among the British population, a number of errors committed by succeeding British governments in the past also need to be mention with regard to the outcome of the referendum.

For example, it was the British Government under Tony Blair which saw ten new members states joining the EU in 2004 and which decided to open its borders to the new European job seekers whereas many other member states, among them Germany and France, opted for transitional constraints. There was a massive leap in immigration in Britain in the years to come. The number of citizens coming from the new member states to the UK rose rapidly. This fact helped the economy grow before the onset of the global financial crisis. It was a free and sovereign decision of the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, the net migration to the UK from outside the EU has been higher than from within for decades. Although immigration control rested pretty much exclusively within the sovereign remit of the UK (and still does), British governments have done little or nothing about it.

In addition, the analysis of the referendum indicates that the “national”, less educated, older voters in England’s and Wales’ rural areas voted to leave the EU. Britain’s urban bustling areas with cities such as London, Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool, and Manchester were most supportive of the EU. It looks like that quite some pro-leave voters living in rural, structurally weak areas wanted to punish Britain’s ruling class. They might have benefited only very little from globalisation and felt let down by Britain’s political elite when faced with concerns about rising immigration or their own economic prosperity. Tragically, they will be probably one of the most affected should the United Kingdom really leave the European Union.

And finally, it was the British government of Tony Blair which decided 2003 to invade Iraq alongside the US, dividing the European Union and its member states, leading at the end to the death of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, causing the very existence of ISIS and its terrorism and fuelling the biggest migration flaws since World War II. Needless to say that both, migration and terrorism, have had a profound effect on the campaign and the outcome of the referendum. And as Sir John Chilcot after his Iraq inquiry just concluded these days, “military action at that time was not a last resort”, but by doing so the UK was even “undermining the Security Council’s authority”.

6) How the Leave camp ran an insidious and demagogic campaign

The Leave campaign eventually added to people’s fear of losing control of their own destiny and seeing an excessive rise in foreign population. The camp fuelled eurosceptic sentiments in Britain and took advantage of the loss of confidence in the so-called elites.

One obvious example was certainly Nigel Farage showing up with his infamous “Breaking Point”-poster one week before the referendum. This overtly racist act has become one of the symbols of the campaign. Within hours, social media users had pointed out the image’s similarity to Nazi propaganda footage.

The Leave campaign also brazenly and deliberately lied to win over voters. One of the already famous examples is their lie about the £350 million of weekly EU contributions written in massive letter on the side of Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave battle bus. Not only that it is much less what the UK is contributing to the EU budget, but within days of the result on 23 June, it also had become clear that the claim that these contributions could instead be spent on the NHS was a truly futile calculation: the Brexit vote had already sent the pound crashing, business and consumer confidence are tumbling and investments are on hold. Now, a recession in the UK is likely to come.

The complex dynamics of our modern economy had just been dismissed by the leaders of the Leave campaign. Michael Glove, for example, said that “people in this country have had enough of experts“. By doing so, he reassured those who felt overwhelmed by complexity and he also shamelessly profited from the loss of confidence in the global elites.

So it does not come as a surprise that older, less-educated voters with nationalist nostalgia and renewed nationalist aspirations had joined the Leave camp. The great majority of younger, well-educated and cosmopolitan Brits had voted to stay. This view is reinforced by a poll from one of Britain’s leading research institutes about how much – or better about how less – British people did know about key facts of the European Union and the referendum’s campaigns only one week before the referendum.

It should also be noted that the campaign run by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Michael Glove together with several British newspapers had created an atmosphere in British society that bears major responsibility for the deadly attack on Jo Cox and the recent upsurge in xenophobic violence.

The serious damage the whole campaign has done to Britain’s international reputation speaks for itself. It disqualifies any of the three leading figures for any public office in the European Union. Only a few days after the referendum, Michael Gove backstabbed his former ally Boris Johnson. However, it was a bad joke then to see Michael Gove, now the second Brutus of British politics after Boris Johnson, trying to run for office. Every day already that goes by with him being Secretary of State for Justice is just another bad day for the current government’s reputation and an ongoing affront to Britain’s judicial system. And whenever Nigel Farage sets a foot in the European Parliament, it becomes clear how miserable he is. After having failed to obtain a seat in the British House of Commons, it is not beneath his dignity to live further at the expense of European taxpayers’ money and to still access the very European institution he wants to lock – once and for all – for the British people.

7) The strategic limits of the Remain camp and another mistake by David Cameron

The official Remain campaign, including first and foremost David Cameron, focused instead on the economic disadvantages caused by a potential Brexit. But they did not manage to set out a positive and compelling vision of the UK’s place in the common European Union. That’s how Remainers enabled the Leave camp to vilify them for ‘Project Fear’. And this way, the only thing left for them was not much more than rallying public support for preserving the status quo. Indeed, there was the “New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union” reached at the European Council on 18-19 February. But for many Brits, it did not go far enough.

Therefore, the Remain campaign was confined to the historical limits of a country that had joined the European Union for economic reasons but has always refused to be a convincing part of a political union.

Finally, David Cameron did not make public that the outcome of the referendum was also about his future. The response of some Brits to his resignation can lead to the belief that more people in Britain might have voted to remain in the EU if he had indicated in advance that he would step down in the event of a Brexit vote.

8) An immature European civil society and the handling of the refugee crisis by the European member states

Political leaders, the media and civil society in other member states of the European Union bear their part of responsibility for the outcome. They woke up far too late – if they woke up at all before 23 June.

For example, it was only on 11 June, 12 days before the referendum, that the German SPIEGEL magazine put the question of the “in or out” vote on its front page to rally for Britain to remain in the EU. It was not much until then that the German media suddenly started to cover the story in all its urgency and acuteness. That was also about the time when other countries decided to take similar action, which, however, turned out to be too late.

And only a few of Europe’s celebrities or leaders of civil society stood up to show their support. Few European football players and coaches in the Premier League expressed their position on the referendum, and if so, they kept quite a low profile. Famous musicians, well-known actors, writers, scientists, and artists from across Europe had the chance to have their say but how many do you remember to speak out loud and clearly?

The 27 national parliaments of the member states of the European Union, for example, could have launched an initiative to make a case for the British people remaining in the European Union. But they didn’t.

All this is quite strange because all nations of the European Union have a vested interest in keeping the British people in the European Union. Consistent action was lacking, perhaps for fear of interfering in the internal affairs of a member state. This, however, is an obsolete and outmoded notion of a genuine, joint union of the peoples of Europe.

All this indicates, how far away Europe still is from a true and genuine European civil society.

And last but not least it was the member states of the European Union disagreeing on how to deal with the refugee crisis that might have made many people in Britain lose confidence in the EU’s ability to find solutions – especially to pressing challenges such as migration. The reform package hammered out with the UK at the summit on 18 and 19 February did not send out a strong signal that there would be a profound change on migration policies in Great Britain soon.

Some initial conclusions

Within a few days the outcome of the referendum already had serious consequences for the United Kingdom.

David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove have led Britain into a situation which could go down in history as Britain’s biggest loss of global influence since the Suez Crisis in 1956. Britain’s EU Commissioner has already resigned. It is hardly conceivable that Britain will be allowed to take over the EU presidency in 2017. The Prime Minister has announced to step down and the power struggle to succeed him has been under way. Meanwhile, British Labour, the most important opposition party, is going through its own leadership crisis. Those who were leading the Leave campaign have backstabbed each other and shy away from taking responsibility for the mess they created. They did not leave much more of a vision than just to be out of the European Union, let alone a concrete plan how to proceed after the referendum. Westminster has become a drama of epic proportions with Shakespeare parallels. The United Kingdom is lacking a government with a convincing democratic mandate. And with Scots seeking a second independence referendum, the very existence of the United Kingdom – after three centuries – is at stake.

The economic impact for the British people is already very serious indeed. The UK lost its triple-A credit rating, the British pound hit a 30-years-low, investment decisions are on hold and consumer and business confidence are plunging. A recession is likely to come.

As if that were not enough, the referendum debate and the result have shown deep rifts in British society. Scotland and Northern Ireland were largely Remain. And so were the metropolitan and urban areas and the overwhelming majority of young Brits. The average “out” voter does not really seem to be a fountain of youth or a symbol of hope for a prosperous British future in a knowledge-based, globalized 21st century. And many people in Britain face now an even greater uncertainty about their individual future and their jobs.

That doesn’t seem to look good for Britain. And it is not good for the European Union either. It will take a lot of time and effort to heal the wounds – if people would wish it at all.

However, 17 million people in Britain voted to leave the European Union on 23 June. Their votes have to be respected – as they are responsible for them. They voted to leave, be it because they had been misled by demagogues and liars or they are simply deeply convinced that the United Kingdom is better off outside the European Union. The choice was theirs. Even though they represent only about a quarter of the British population they did win the referendum under the existing rules.

So it is hard to imagine that the UK will not invoke Article 50 and that the new Prime Minister will not start the formal and legal process of leaving the European Union. Nevertheless, the British Parliament will ultimately have to ratify the treaty authorising the withdrawal of the United Kingdom. Chances are that this will not occur before 2018 by reason of the scale and the complexity of the procedure. A lot can happen in two years – especially if one realizes what has happened in Britain in the last three weeks. Therefore, Britain ‘s political future seems to be even more uncertain than before the referendum.

The 48% who have voted to remain in the European Union do not have to lose hope. It would be too early – given all the circumstances of the referendum, its narrow result and the fact that parliament will ultimately need to ratify the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. And in addition: if one can make a country leave the European Union, so one can lead it back into the European Union. For example, the next General Elections in 2020 would already invite for such a movement.

However, there is a serious limitation for Britain to remain – or even to re-enter one day – the European Union: the general attitude of many British people towards a common political Union of the people of Europe.

Maybe the upcoming months will help to develop a different mindset in Britain: due to the political chaos followed by the vote, the UK’s diminishing political influence in Europe and the economic consequences of a vote to leave.

But attitudes usually change only slowly over time. The referendum results have revealed how deeply divided British society is. And the hostility and hatred which one can find on social media or now even on the streets of Britain are already indicating that it will not be easy at all to change attitudes.

If the United Kingdom was to remain in the European Union – or to re-enter it one day after leaving -, it would be crucial to develop a more favourable attitude towards the common Union, its institutions, representatives and officials in large parts of the British population. Among other things, education and enlightenment would be necessary.

Some day in the future, a final decision to withdraw or not to withdraw will have to be taken by the British parliament. Then, Members of Parliament will have to consider and weigh up the alternatives, in particular the status of a negotiated new relationship between Britain and the European Union in comparison to Britain’s current full membership. They will have to take into account not only the decision of half of the British population which voted 52-48, but also the future of those who did not cast their vote and – even more important – the future of those who were too young to be eligible for a vote on 23 June. Then, remaining in the European Union would only make sense if the British people can commit to the endeavour of a common political Union. The European Union is more than just a Single Market. And the European Union is more than a cost-benefit analysis for one nation. Remaining in the European Union would only make sense, if a majority of the British people develop a perception of the common institutions that they do not hinder them but that they are actually the best insurance for all Europeans in the 21st century to protect Europe’s common values and interests; that they are imperfect only in order to be made more “perfect” and that they have a history how they were built but that they can be developed further together to better represent and legitimize the common will of the European people.

The final outcome of this process will depend on the acts and omissions of the British in the months and years ahead – whatever they may be.

Meanwhile, the European Union itself would do well by reforming further and protecting its interests. This will be a matter of discussion elsewhere.

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