Brexit: Reasons and Lessons to Learn

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The result of the June 23rd referendum in the United Kingdom apparently markes a significant milestone in history. However, its reasons and consequences are much less obvious. It would be at least ignorance or even a serious mistake to consider it solely an internal affair of the UK, and blame the national politicians for being populist, taking risks or not being able to control the situation. British were always skeptical and critical towards the EU, and mainstream politics could not respond to the trends of the last years when these sentiments became stronger and stronger. If it had not been decided at a referendum, the issue of the EU membership could have dominated the national election anyway. This is why British voters had to be allowed to vote on the future of their country – just like the Scottish were given the same opportunity.

Although David Cameron made several mistakes in this case (the promise of the referendum was the smaller one, the unsuccessful Remain campaign was the bigger blunder), he is certainly not the only one to blame for the present situation and the uncertain future. The extremely divided Conservative and Labour Party both contributed to the Brexit, and their failure in the Remain campaign reveals significant structural problems in regard to their capabilities to convince and mobilize the people.

On the one hand, the campaign of Brexiters should not be described as pure populism. On the other hand, fighting populism by labeling it as an inappropriate, non-European, undemocratic tool or strategy is not the only way to go about it. Emotions should be a key motif of a debate about the European community. Rational and emotional identification can and should not be framed as economic questions or purely opposites. The campaigners could or (should) have known the voters: their concerns, desires and fears. When seeing the results it was clear: districts expected to vote for remain did not do this eventually, and others turned out to be voting even more for Brexit than predicted. Results from the districts in Wales or North-Eastern Ireland show that Brexiters were better in the campaign and could turn the table.

There is a popular chart showing that the highest rate of “remain” voters was in the youngest generation (18-24), but it is rarely mentioned that the opinion polls usually showed the lowest voter participation in this group. This has been interpreted by some in ways like “old voters have stolen the future of younger generations”, quite close to ageism. Let us see two important pieces of data which can help us better understand the situation: according to the census, in 2011, the number of voters between 18-24 was 5.9 million, the ones older than 65 were 10.4 million. It is a big difference, and the other is just as much relevant: this referendum again showed the lowest voter participation among the youngest, while older ones were (and are generally) more likely to vote, just like everywhere else in Europe.

Turnout by age group (source:

The most important consequences might be: younger generations must take their part in politics and need to vote in order to see results in favor of them (or have to convince the older one to take their interests into consideration when voting.) It might be a cliché but elections and referendums are decided by the ones who vote. In the constantly aging European population this conflict might be more and more serious and visible, and can further strengthen the frustration of youngsters.

Looking at the socio-demographic characteristics of the Brexit voters we can see they are pretty similar to the voters at the Austrian presidential elections: young, educated, economically better-off voters on one side, and older ones in worse social states on the other hand. And basic differences in terms of openness and immigration: refugee crisis and how the EU handled it was a defining problem for Brexiters. The result of this referendum shows once again: there is no good response to this issue which could calm existential fears of the societies. This problem will not disappear by itself, and it is more and more likely to become a serious schism in internal political affairs.

What EU means to the British is also worth looking at: Brexit voters mainly associate it with negative things. According to the 2015 November Eurobarometer, the ones agreeing with the statement that their country “has a better future outside of the EU” were more likely to identify it with not enough control at “external borders”, “waste of money” and the “loss of cultural identity”, and not with its most important advantages like “freedom of movement”, “stronger say in the world” or “peace”. It is important to note that “bureaucracy” is a relevant association for 20% of those who disagree with the statement (so basically were for the EU membership.)

What does the EU mean to you personally? (multiple answers possible)

The debate cannot be won without being able to talk to the voters: an unemployed worker in Sunderland will not be convinced only by moral and humanist arguments. It is not true that the integration of 1 or 2% of refugees of European society should not be a problem if a significant part of the population is living in poverty and hopelessness. Most of the Brexit voters chose it as option because they do not know what the EU has been doing for them – it is somewhat logical for them to think that since they did not feel the advantages of the membership and the disadvantages of the exit will not affect them either. Those voting for “remain” had great economic arguments which is sufficient to win in London or among more aware voters, but this strategy apparently does not guarantee victory. If the European and national leaders – and opinion leaders – do not reconsider their position on the current state of the EU and their communication strategy it will result in other “too close to call” elections or referenda where the results will clearly show the division and polarization of societies.

Roland Reiner
Reka Csaba