The Tragedy of Brexit: Pro-European Mobilisation After the Referendum

On 25th March 2017, a pro-EU march – the March for Europe – took place in London, with crowd estimates ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 participants. Similar, smaller-scale marches took place in other cities across the UK such as Edinburgh and Newcastle. The march was organised by ‘Unite for Europe’, one of a number of pro-European campaigns that emerged on social media, primarily Facebook, immediately following the referendum in order to defend the so-called “48%” – the percentage of those who voted for the UK to remain in the EU. The march was called to coincide with both the government’s announcement to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty prior to the end of the month and the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

Pro-EU mobilisation is a completely new phenomenon in the UK and needs to be explained in large part in relation to the shattering of life expectations and identities of those who feel personally affected by the decision to leave the EU. For the ‘48%’, Brexit is not simply considered as a wrong political choice, it is experienced as a personal tragedy. At the same time, ‘marching for Europe’ might take on multiple meanings for those people driven to protest against Brexit. In this blog, we present preliminary research findings from a survey of almost 1000 protesters on the London March for Europe, conducted as part of our research project on Brexit and citizenship. We shall argue that  the 48% do not simply protest against Brexit but contest the political framing of Brexit as an expression of  the ‘will of the people’. While such claims are raised by the government with the intention to ‘unify’ the people, their paradoxical effect is that substantial parts of the population feel marginalised and alienated What ‘unites’ the anti-Brexiters is a shared sense of not being represented with regard to their diverse concerns, interests and identities. In particular, their everyday experience of European integration, with lives that transcend national borders, clashes with the exclusive national community constructed by the UK government post-referendum.

In his recent book, What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller argues that democratic claims of representation, which are principally pluralist, are confronted with a populist style of political representation, which is of a moral and symbolic nature, and whose claims cannot be refuted. This is precisely the style of argumentation that has been adopted by the British government since the referendum to authorize the UK’s departure from the EU. Theresa May has argued that ‘Parliament put the decision to leave or remain inside the EU in the hands of the people. And the people gave their answer with emphatic clarity.’ In reference to those calling for a parliamentary vote on the trigger of Article 50, she claimed that they ‘are not standing up for democracy, they’re trying to subvert it…They are insulting the intelligence of the British people’ (May, 2016).

Thus, not only does she suggest those calling for parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit are opponents of democracy (recalling the Daily Mail’s headline referring to the Supreme Court judges as the ‘enemies of the people’), she also excludes them from her understanding of ‘the British people’. If Theresa May’s path towards Brexit de facto bans plural interest-representation, this implies that citizenship rights and belonging can, in fact, not be renegotiated but are imposed by the winning majority. Brexit is inextricably linked to decisions that redraw the borders of the political community and deprive people of rights, such as freedom of movement, that can be exercised beyond the nation-state. Such suppression of plural interest representation is problematic in a basic democratic sense. But it is also paired with very subjective experiences of injustice felt by those whose rights are curtailed against their will.

Our findings suggest that a feeling of misrepresentation is a significant mobilising factor against Brexit. The ‘tragedy of Brexit’ is experienced by protesters as a deprivation of political representation, of collective identification and of personal autonomy and rights. Firstly, respondents express an explicit sense that they are not represented by the government and UK politicians. Many protesters react to the lack of opposition to Brexit, feeling powerless or disenfranchised and that nobody is representing their interests in parliament. Others feel that opposition or dissent is being actively quashed by the government or media or that Brexit is being led by a ‘small minority of extremists’ pursuing their own interests.  The fact that EU citizens resident in the UK were not allowed to vote is also mentioned, with one respondent noting that demonstrating was the only way to make their voice heard.

Secondly protesters very much emphasized how they felt excluded from popular constructions of the “British people”. A number of respondents expressed a sense of alienation in the sense of no longer feeling happy in their own country, or no longer feeling proud of being English or British. Alienation often originates in the experience that one’s collective identity is being suppressed. Europe, or a sense of Europeanness, stands for such positive identifications with diversity, which many of our respondents feel as something being ‘ripped away’ or ‘taken away’ from them. Brexit is experienced as imposing a sense of Britishness that is defined by the majority and not as it corresponds to their personal life experiences, family ties and projects. The same dismay is also felt by EU citizens living in the UK who explain that Brexit effectively made them homeless, no longer welcomed in the country where they have been living for many years, or even decades, and at the same time being detached from their country of origin.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the way in which those personal interests are misrepresented post-Brexit has direct effects on people’s lives. Demonstrators express deep concerns about the impact of Brexit on the futures of their transnational families and their children and grandchildren, who are deprived of the opportunities of free movement in Europe, perceived as much more than a market but as a shared space of social and cultural experiences. The everyday reality of an integrated Europe, where decades of intra-EU migration have resulted in relationships and families that extend beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, is confronted with nationalist politics that seeks to tighten borders between European member states.

Lack of certainty about legal rights to remain in the country of residence is causing anxieties and worries about the future. Respondents are worried about whether EU partners can stay in the UK, or whether British partners will be able to freely travel or move to the other partner’s home country. They also express concerns about elderly parents and parents-in-law, as they may no longer enjoy the right to bring them to the UK, or indeed EU nationals may lose the right to permanent residence if they spend time outside of the country caring for them. Some respondents also explain that their children hold different nationalities to the parents (who may also not share the same nationality). The demonstrators paint a picture of intertwined European, and indeed international, lives that will be torn apart through the loss of EU citizenship and the right to freedom of movement.

We see that the claim to represent of a unified national community excludes those whose European lives, identities and values do not fit the new homogenous, exclusive conception of Britishness.  The protesters thus raise the broader question of political representation, diversity and multiple identities in the EU. Their concerns highlight precisely such questions over the legitimate frame of authority to redefine national boundaries, citizenship and rights. Brexit thus results in a huge representation gap, which affects the ‘48%’ and the question of how to accommodate their diversity in a future Britain.

At the same time, the protesters signal an opportunity to redefine the meaning of EU citizenship as a citizenship beyond the nation-state, decoupled from national citizenship. Such opportunities will be picked up in the Brexit negotiations. We might therefore ask whether the claims for representation by the demonstrators sketch out a certain democratic responsibility for the EU to launch a resistance to the populist logic of representation.

The role of EU actors in Brexit negotiations will be of particular interest, especially concerning the question of what EU citizenship will become post-Brexit. The European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, has consistently called for an opt-in, associate form of EU citizenship for Britons, and the EU’s chief negotiator Michael Barnier has vowed to place the rights of European citizens at the forefront of the European Parliament’s negotiating strategy. Overall, Brexit represents a potential turning point for EU citizenship and democratic representation in the EU. It remains to be seen how far Europe’s leaders rise to this challenge.

Verena Brändle is a PhD student in the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen.

Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics at the University of Birmingham and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen.

Hans-Jörg Trenz is Professor for Modern European Studies in the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen and ARENA, University of Oslo.

This research is part of EuroChallenge, a major research project funded by the University of Copenhagen’s Excellence Programme for Interdisciplinary Research. The project addresses Europe in the context of a changing global order and growing conflict over European integration.

Photo by Jens Roesner

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