Brexit is Not Just about Exiting the European Union: A Reading List

The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union is indicative of not only its own narrow self-perception but also of the rise of an anti-immigration and racist stance put forth by right-wing groups.

The United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU), dubbed “Brexit,” in a referendum on 23 June 2016. “The turnout was higher than the national elections—roughly 72% and the verdict, a rather decisive one with 51% in favour of Brexit,” wrote Kaustav Bhattacharyya (2016).

After multiple extended rounds of negotiation with the EU regarding the terms of the UK’s planned withdrawal, the 2016 referendum decision finally came to fruition on 31 January 2020, the official date of the end of the UK’s membership with the EU.

UK’s withdrawal from the EU, 47 years after joining its predecessor the European Economic Community (EEC), was significant—it is the first ever country to formally leave the bloc.

However, both parties agreed to keep many trading conditions unchanged for a transition period during which the UK would continue to participate in the EU’s customs union and single market. During this period, the UK and the EU were to carry on further negotiations for a new trade deal. 

This transition period came to an end on 31 December 2020.

Under the terms of the new “Brexit” deal, the buying and selling of goods without paying taxes would continue unchanged between the UK and the EU (subject to adherence by both parties to common standards and rules) but the free movement of people to work and live in the UK and the EU would come to an end and visa requirements would come into play. The UK would also be free to negotiate its own trade agreements with other countries, without being held to EU’s commitments.

A month after the end of the transition period and a year after the official end of the UK’s membership, this reading list revisits the Brexit referendum and the implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

The UK’s History of Euroscepticism

The UK’s fraught relationship with Europe goes back to before the formation of the EU. Radha D’Souza (August 2016) wrote that “Euroscepticism” had dogged British politics throughout the post-World War era:

The foundations of the European Union (EU) were laid without Britain. Winston Churchill favoured a European community in 1946, but did not wish to put Britain at its centre. Britain stayed out of the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which was formally known as the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Later ECSC became a part of the EU.
Britain did not sign the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. 

Even after the UK joined the EEC in 1973, “the European question did not die down.” In 1975, a referendum was held, under “a divided Labour Party,” in which “67.2% of the electorate voted to remain in the EEC.”

The Conservative Party faced similar divisions over the UK’s relationship with Europe after Margaret Thatcher came into power in 1979. D’Souza continued:

Thatcher signed up to the Single European Act in 1986 which set a timetable for merger and a common currency, but turned against the project later. 
… In 1985, Britain stayed out of the Schengen Agreement on border controls. In 1990, Britain joined the monetary union much later than the other states only to withdraw within two years in 1992, following an intense speculation in the currency markets. 

When in 1992, under the Maastricht Treaty (the Treaty on European Union), Europe tried to incorporate a political union with the economic union, both the ruling Conservative party and the Labour Party were divided on the matter.  

The Tory government signed the Maastricht Treaty without a referendum. The opposition within the party forced the government to negotiate several opt-out clauses and exemptions.

Similarly, after rejecting the Treaty of Nice, which “introduced governance structures to sync the institutions of member-states,” the UK signed the updated Lisbon Treaty in 2007 and it was “ratified by its parliament without a referendum despite persistent divisions.”

Over the years, the UK has not been all that sold on the European project of regional integration. Kirsty Hughes (2016) noted:

Britain was long a slightly awkward member, not sharing the political enthusiasm of some member states for ever closer political and economic union, staying out of the Euro when it was created 17 years ago, and also opting out of the EU’s border-free “Schengen” zone.

Anti-immigration, Xenophobia and Britain’s Self-perception 

The UK’s historic “Euroscepticism” has roots in its fears of control and regulatory oversight by an external non-sovereign centre of power. These fears were evident even before its refusal to sign into the EEC in 1957. The EPW “From the London End” column (1957) wrote:

With regard to the institutional framework within which [a potential] free trade area would operate, the United Kingdom is clearly opposed to the setting up of a community assembly or any supranational authority.

Another dimension of the UK’s Euroscepticism is immigration from Europe. Nader Fekri (2019) wrote:

Since the 1980s, Britons have generally thought (according to opinion polls) that there were “too many immigrants” (Collins 2016). However, the relative importance of immigration as an issue compared to others such as the economy or the National Health Service was almost insignificant until the mid-2000s. From the late 1990s some sections of the British tabloid press picked up and exploited this element of xenophobia and the government responded by itself using harsher language and introducing tougher measures against immigrants (Smith 2014). There was a general blurring of the distinction between asylum seekers, illegal migrants, illegal working and criminal activity, all of which fed and encouraged a general suspicion of all migrants. The media began to gorge itself on stories featuring refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and migrants, few of which presented the new arrivals in a positive light, and who were often portrayed by the press as posing a problem (Lubbers 2004).
In the 2000s, as the EU moved to “ever closer union” and “ever deeper integration,” Eurosceptics within the Conservative party began to talk openly of leaving the EU. (Szczerbiak and Taggart 2008) 

Bhattacharyya (2016) contextualised immigration to the UK in the 2000s:

The UK, like most Western countries, has a restricted and selective process of accepting migrants. However, in the case of the EU, it has to accept every EU citizen who is willing to work and live, and grant the permission to do so. The EU extended its frontiers and expanded its borders through a process called “accession” between 2004, till about 2007, and 12 new member states joined the EU. The citizens of these new member states were granted free, unrestricted access to the UK labour market since the UK is a member of the EU.
This unrestricted immigration where individuals from new member states can enter the UK and stay back and work had a cascading effect on the number of new migrants entering the UK legitimately. To offer an idea of the scale of this European migration, between 2004 and 2014—the 10-year period since the accession of these Eastern Bloc countries—the population of Eastern European migrants in the UK rose from around 1,50,000 to about a million, which is an unprecedented scale for the British society. 

The “Leave” campaign prior to the 2016 Brexit referendum tapped into this anti-immigration sentiment. Bhattacharyya explained the “disenchantment of the British leave voters” by adding:

Clearly, immigration from Eastern Europe was perceived to be a major irritant for most of the British voters and being part of the EU or membership of the bloc was seen as something undesirable and negative. Political parties and the politicians who were campaigning for Brexit championed slogans like “take back control of our borders,” and some posters even depicted doomsday scenes of millions of migrants marching into the UK.

Hughes (2016) also wrote:

The UK political discourse over the last decades has failed to counter the euroscepticism of the Tory Party and of much of the mainstream, eurosceptic media. Nor has there been robust defence of the positive, creative and economically beneficial effects of immigration from inside and outside the EU on the UK economy.

1. Economic Insecurity and Anti-immigration

Since the referendum, there have been debates as to the underlying logic of the anti-immigration stance in the UK—a perceived economic threat or a more existential threat. Rahul Menon (2016) wrote:

… while some theories highlight the influence of racist and xenophobic rhetoric of parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in motivating the decision to leave the EU, others hold that the stagnation of incomes and living standards are much to blame for the fact that a politically alienated populace saw no benefits to staying in the EU. (Davies 2016)

On the basis of his analysis of increased social security transfers in 1997–2014, Menon went on to argue:

[if] the increase in social security transfers does indicate a slowing down of employment and livelihood opportunities, then migrants become more visible as an explanation—however wrong—of one’s economic distress. When incomes are falling across the board, domestic populations might turn on migrants and hold them responsible for reduced access to jobs, instead of questioning the objective factors leading to a loss of jobs in the first place.

2. Britain’s Self-perception and Racism

Yet, there is no denying that the “Leave” anti-immigration campaign was backed by racist rhetoric. Sachin Nikarge (2016) wrote

Accusations of racism have followed the anti-EU movement for some years. In the days preceding the referendum, the man alleged to have shot and stabbed British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, a pro-remain campaigner, had reportedly raised the “Britain first” slogan and had links with the United States (US) white supremacy groups. Data from Google trends show a sudden spike in searches for “Brexit racist” and “Brexit xenophobia” on the day the results of the referendum became known. There was no shortage of people on social media suggesting a link between these factors and the results of the referendum.
In the heated atmosphere before the referendum, the lines between anti-immigration rhetoric and pure racism might have become blurry.

D’Souza (July 2016) also noted that racism drove the sentiment of blaming immigrants for economic issues:

For the leave side, immigration and the National Health Service (NHS) were pivotal issues, their arguments cloaked in jingoistic nationalism. The immigrants were somehow responsible for Little England’s problems, including the crisis in the NHS. 

Fekri’s (2019) analysis took it one step further, suggesting an inexorable link between Britain’s “Euroscepticism” and xenophobia. He wrote:

The UK’s relationship with mainland Europe has been complex and complicated. The British, and particularly the English, see themselves as Europeans by an accident of geography. Certainly from Oliver Cromwell onwards, they like to see themselves as a race apart, chosen by God, above all others. The author Geoffrey Trease wrote that children’s storybooks showed that “the British must always win. One Englishman equals two Frenchmen equals four Germans equals any number of non-Europeans (Knuth 2012).”

Britain’s perceptions of the world and of itself came to a head with allusions to Britain’s “glorious past” in the “Leave” campaign. Bharat Wariavwalla (2016) noted:

Boris Johnson, who led a populist, rhetorical, jingoist campaign, talked of 23 June as “independence day.” Pax Britannia would once again rule the oceans, Johnson often said during the campaign. 

Sumit K Majumdar (2016) argued:

To understand why Brexit has happened, it is useful to appreciate the sociology of political leadership in Britain. By and large, political leadership in Britain has emerged from the rosters of Oxford University, where students are instructed to go forth and govern, and that the entire world needs their leadership. Even if physically colonies no longer exist, Oxford students are taught to go forth and colonise less fortunate minds that belong to the rest of the world.
The imagined world is one of a demographically pure and glorious past when Britain, run by the ancestors of this group, was the world’s source of manufactured output, technology, capital, and ideas. Into this romantic idyll, the little matter of immigration, fuelled by globalisation, has intruded and altered the human composition of Britain by creating a vulgar heterogeneity. Additional vulgarities have included dealing with the diversities of processes that go with being a part of a globalised world, and one way to lessen the dissonances of diversity and heterogeneity-driven vulgarities is to state: “Stop the world; I am getting off!” Hence, Brexit.

Globalisation and the Rise of the “Right” 

Brexit has provided the interna­tional right-wing populist movement a fertile ground on which to grow and expand.

wrote Atul Bhardwaj (2019), arguing that the British society was divided on the Brexit issue and “the only group gaining through this induced polarisation of British society is the right-wing populist one, which is using maritime geography to project itself as the ultimate change agent, the angel of history, and an epitome of British insularity.”

Wariavwalla (2016) positioned the growth of an “anti-immigrant racist right” not just in the UK but across Europe, amid the contesting ideologies of the nation state and a globalised “community of nations” in Europe:

This right in Europe is against the EU, and not only because the latter prevails over the nation which it values as the unit of people’s identity and loyalty. By the Schengen Agreement of 1985, the EU countries are committed to the freedom of movement of people. This right threatens the level of integration that prevails today among the 28 sovereign states of Europe. This is the EU that risks being undone by the right. 

He further explained the inherent dichotomy between the two ideologies:

The authors of the idea of Europe felt that it was the “nation” that was the root cause of the two world wars. The nation state as a form of political, social and economic organisation that first arose in Europe in the late 18th century became the repository of coercive powers. The state with its monopoly of coercive power is in a constant state of rivalry with other nation states.
… The planners of post-war Europe thought that the way to tame the inherently violent nation states of Europe was to tie them together economically. First, the creation of the European Common Market in 1956, then, greater economic and social integration in the form of the European Economic Community, and at last the European Union were the stages by which the European nations ultimately came to be banded together into a union.

He further clarified that the rising anti-immigration racist right in Europe “is not a right in the economic sense” that believes in a free-market economy and a minimal state. Instead, it is a right that “valorises race and ethnicity, and ensures the state control of the economy.”

The insular nature of the anti-immigration sentiment runs counter to globalisation and free trade. Observing that “immigration is one major aspect of trade,” Majumdar (2016) wrote:

In trade, it is not just goods and services that cross borders, but also capital. It is the free flow of capital, as we know it, which has brought prosperity to the world.
Capital has many manifestations. The key type of capital that has made the world what it is has been human capital. The history of humanity is the record of the flow of people from one place to another in the course of the last 1,00,000 to 2,00,000 years. It has been the free flow of people that has generated innovation and productivity everywhere. It has been the free flow of people that has brought about the richness of life’s experiences, as we know it today, and enhanced the scope of all human activities.

But, it must be remembered that the EU with all its promise of “community” is not about globalisation and can be insular vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Bhattacharyya (2016) argued that the “EU intransigence on linking free movement of persons and free trade” in the context of the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), was indicative of “outright moral hypocrisy and double standards.” Regarding the point of contention in the GATS negotiation regarding service providers from India, he wrote

The intransigence of the EU with respect to freedom of movement or people, especially workers across the entire zone linked to free trade rules of single market in the post-Brexit scenario, now lies exposed as morally and ethically hollow in the light of their conduct with India. The same insistent EU refuses to actively apply similar rules of the game of free movement of people in the global arena, which raises the question of solidarity and principled conduct. In other words, the “principles” are to be adhered to only when it concerns the citizens of the European geographical area, who incidentally share the same ethnicity and race to a large extent.

It must also be remembered that Brexit’s protection of the nationalist ideal of the UK also falls flat in the context of the Scottish vote to “remain.” Hughes (2017) noted:

In March, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted to call a second independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU—ideally in a window from autumn 2018 to spring 2019. Her argument is that it is unacceptable that Scotland, which voted 62% to remain in the EU, is being pulled out of the EU against its will.

Although when Brexit became official in January 2020, Scotland was also brought outside the EU, the Scottish public sentiment for or against Brexit cannot be equivalised with that of England or Wales, revealing geographical fault lines in the “nation state.” 

Read more

Brexit Debates | Paul Richardson and Dhananjay Tripathi, 2016

Fall of Market Democracy in Europe | Shamba Dey, 2016

Brexit Is a Call for Help Echoed Around the World | Avinash Persaud, 2018

Brexit and the Commonwealth Gamble | EPW Engage, 2020

Spoils of Brexit for India | Abhijit Sarkar, 2016

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