Why did people vote for Brexit? Was it a hatred of bureaucratic “red tape” and a desire to preserve sovereignty? Or was the vote to Leave driven by a perceived mishandling of the refugee and migrant crisis in 2015, and the TV images of hundreds of people crossing the borders into Hungary, or arriving on the shores of Greek and Italian islands by boat?
The number of people arriving to seek asylum in the EU has dropped sharply, and is now back at pre-2015 levels. For some commentators, the crisis appears over. Yet the political impact of those chaotic days are still ongoing, and Brexit seems to be the most acute example of that. Did the refugee crisis increase Euroscepticism across the EU? Did it lead to the Brexit vote? And, if it happens again, could other countries also decide to leave?
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Middlesbrough, in the north of England. Compared to other cities in the UK, Middlesbrough has taken a high proportion of asylum seekers and refugees. In 2015, it was the only city in the country to host more than one asylum seeker for every 200 of the population. It also strongly voted “Leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with over 65% of votes supporting the UK’s exit from the European Union. Could these two be related? Did the negative coverage of the refugee crisis (which was at its absolute height in 2015) increase Euroscepticism and push people toward voting for Brexit?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from jthk, who thinks that the way the EU handled the refugee crisis led to an increase in eurosceptism. In fact, he thinks the refugee crisis lead directly to Brexit. Is he right?
To get a reaction, we put his comment to Suzanne Fletcher, a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Stockton-On-Tees, just outside Middlesbrough. She is currently Chair of the Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary and made national headlines by raising the issue of housing for asylum seekers in Middlesbrough being identified with red doors, potentially leaving the residents vulnerable to abuse. What would she say to jthk’s comment?
I don’t think he’s right. I’m not happy how Europe had handled the refugee crisis; I think there should have been much more genuine sharing out of what was happening, much more working together and collaboration. But I think that’s quite separate to how people voted on Brexit, because it wasn’t an informed decision, really. We have a lot of asylum seekers and refugees living here, and anybody who knows them, works with them, is near them – no problems at all. It’s a perceived threat, and it’s really more how the media has played it, and blown issues up, distorted issues, or just plain misreported issues that’s caused the problem. But it’s not Europe’s fault.
For another perspective, we also put jthk’s comment to Lorenza Antonucci, Assistant Professor in Social Policy / Sociology at the University of Birmingham (and previously a Research Lecturer at Teesside University in Middlesbrough). Her research includes a focus on analysing and understanding the reasons for the Brexit vote. So, what has she discovered? Did the refugee crisis lead to a increase in Euroscepticism ahead of the vote?
No, I have no reason to believe that the way the EU handled the refugee crisis led to Brexit. One could argue that the handling of refugee migration might have increased Euroscepticism in Southern European countries or in countries that played a key role in welcoming refugees, such as Germany (and yet Merkel’s approach to refugees gathers majoritarian support). In any case this was not the case of the UK, not only because the UK has accepted a risible number of refugees to be considered a country affected by the ‘refugee crisis’, but also because Cameron called the referendum after a ‘failed’ attempt to renegotiate EU migrant mobility and access to the British welfare state. The handling of refugees and migration from outside the EU is a complex issue that pertains mostly to national laws (so it was and remains a British matter, before and after Brexit) and partially to how the EU manages border controls. We can debate about this second issue, but again, the UK is geographically and legally (read: Schengen) quite protected by EU border issues. This was not therefore the topic at the centre of the negotiations that preceded the call for the referendum.
As for pretty much anything that concerns contemporary politics, we need to distinguish between what people believe and the reality of policies. So did the ‘fear of the refugee crisis’ play a role during the Brexit vote? The fear of refugees was mobilised by the Leave campaign – see the infamous refugee poster unveiled by Farage, condemned as fake news and removed. We need more research to prove that these feelings were internalised by voters and played a role in how they voted. In our own Brexit research we explored several feelings and found that anxiety was not significant to explain the Brexit vote and that ‘feelings to be left out’ was significant only when associated with perceived economic loss. This made us thinking that there was something more material about the Brexit vote than the narrative of the anxious/fearful voter scared by refugees would suggest.
Next up, we had a comment from Adrian who said the real cause of Euroscepticism and populism is austerity, and it’s this that explains the rise of populist, anti-EU parties. How would Suzanne Fletcher respond?
I think that was a big part of it. I think the biggest problem has been the media and how things have been portrayed, whether it’s print media, or visual, or social media. But in areas where people are worse off there has been a higher Brexit vote, and I think people are feeling pretty desperate, they don’t see things changing, things are pretty bad, and I know quite a few people who voted for Brexit thinking that would mean David Cameron would call and election and Jeremy Corbyn would get elected, and then everything would be alright. But, of course, it hasn’t turned out like that, and everything isn’t necessarily going to be alright anyway. I personally don’t think that is the answer at all. And those people have said to me they would change their mind. But it is people feeling beaten down, no hope, not enough money, not enough opportunities – and I think opportunities is a huge thing. They don’t see a future. And it was a chance, they thought, of making a change. And, of course, it hasn’t. It’s going to make things worse for the very people that can’t afford to be any worse off.
Finally, what would Lorenza Antonucci say to this comment
I am not convinced that it was a conscious vote against austerity (otherwise it would have been followed by a conscious political vote for anti-austerity parties in the following GE elections), but I agree that austerity has indirectly played a role in the Brexit vote. It definitely had a factual role compared to migration. But contemporary politics is also made of imagination – and therefore we need to understand why austerity took the shape of the fear of the other (EU and non-EU migrant) and opposition to the EU, instead of taking the shape of anger against the elite in the specific British context.
Brexit says way more about the UK than about Europe. Austerity also happened in other European countries, in particular in Southern European countries, but those countries have not (yet) reacted with such level of Euroscepticism. To understand why the EU became the target of such popular frustration, we need to understand how the EU has been framed in British media and political debates. As I wrote shortly after the referendum, the British elites have kept their knowledge of EU affairs as part of their ‘cultural capital’. EU affairs have been out of the national curriculum and very few European perspectives have been offered in popular and media debates. The lack of popular interest in EU affairs made it easier to then use the EU and Europe as a blame avoidance instrument by the government and to neglect that the EU agenda is, after all, the expression of the Member States’ interests, in particular of the most powerful states, as the UK.
I have reasons to believe that self-inflicted British austerity played a role in influencing the vote. In our research we found that individuals from ‘the squeezed middle’, an intermediate class whose financial position has been declining, represent an important section of the Brexit vote. These people are typically unhappy about the evolution of their lives in the latest 5 years – and there are plenty of evidence to show that the Conservatives’ policies adopted since 2010 have depressed consumption and affected the material lives of intermediate segments of the population. In a way Brexit has worked to prevent a mass opposition that could have been directed to British national politics (see the GE elections 2017).
So yes, to conclude, austerity can be considered the economic and material reason behind the vote, but we are mostly talking about a self-inflicted British austerity agenda (uploaded also to the EU and then downloaded by Southern European countries). If this agenda resulted in Brexit in the UK, it is because of the politics of resentment (the fear of the ‘other’, EU migrants, refugees etc) and of specific role that the EU has come to play in British politics since the beginning of the European project.
Has the refugee crisis increased Euroscepticism? Was Brexit more the fault of relentless negative coverage by the media? Or was austerity and a backlash against public budget cuts to blame? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
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