Theofanis Exadaktylos, Simona Guerra and Roberta Guerrina
The British EU membership referendum in June 2016 has had a limited impact on national politics across the EU member states, but it has definitely changed the public debate in terms of redefining Euroscepticism. While the literature has extensively examined party Euroscepticism, contributions on public attitudes have focused on causal explanations based on identity, rationality, institutional and cultural models. Recent studies analyse the impact of the economic and financial crisis, and the media, and how the salience of Euroscepticism has increased and shifted its position from the margins to the mainstream. Yet, the post-financial crisis years, the steady decreasing levels of turnout at European Parliament (EP) elections, the refugee crisis, the British referendum and wider security debates have led towards more pressing questions on the future of the EU, and, in particular, towards the study of public opinion and civil society.
Although the current crisis and contested debates have raised the salience of the EU issue, it is important to distinguish how citizens live the crisis and encourage the agenda on research on public Euroscepticism, focused on non-elites and civil society. John FitzGibbon addresses the multi-faceted opposition to the current state of the EU integration process, developed across different arenas, which found a lack of leadership and response in the EU decision-making structure and vision. In FitzGibbon’s study he argues that the reaction across civil society to this type of institutional crisis, strengthened by the Eurocrisis, led to a new form of opposition, supporting the polity, but opposing the current direction of the EU integration process, labelled Euroalternativism.
As noted in previous research, although diversified, political and social debates are deeply affected by the media. This might not always favour unbiased information, as the media undoubtedly represents a channel of contestation. Charlotte Galpin and Hans-Joerg Trenz address a possible ‘spiral of Euroscepticism’ following the preference towards ‘polemicism, excessiveness, and general negativity’. In addition, the widespread use of online media is likely to favour context-based events that do not necessarily support the spread of political information and/or facts. On the contrary, traditional media correlates with information and a more positive attitude towards the EU, while online media exposure is likely to impact on more pessimism towards the EU and the trajectory of the EU integration process, as underlined by Nicolò Conti and Vincenzo Memoli – perhaps creating online echo-chambers and reproduction of such paradigms. In addition, the harshly contested referendum campaign, following years of general contentious and negative coverage across the EU due to the financial and economic crisis, and the previous Greek referendum (July 2015), ended well beyond the tipping point examined just two years ago by Nick Startin.
The campaign ahead of the referendum on British membership of the EU, leading to the vote of 23 June 2016, was highly charged. The rhetoric deployed by both camps generated anxiety, uncertainty, anger and fear. In this contribution, we offer an analysis of survey data carried out by the YouGov polling agency two weeks after the referendum (6-7 July 2016) as part of our research project ‘Brexit or Bremain: Britain and the 2016 British Referendum’, assessing the results. Our survey data show that both Leave and Remain voters cited ‘immigration’, the ‘economy’ (or economic stability), and ‘sovereignty’ as the reason for their voting preference. In particular, we seek to point to the salience of emotions that have been moved by the referendum campaign and the impact these may have.
Emotions are an important factor behind human decision-making and are likely to influence the rational evaluation of the referendum position. It appears that both campaigns had an influence in increasing citizens’ anxieties and uncertainties, with uncertainty quite widespread among those who voted Remain and with gender and age-group cleavage that seem to have persisted through to the June 2017 UK general election campaign. While women and young people tend to be more anxious or uncertain, men are likely to feel angry and disappointed. Among their open answers, the possible challenges towards the future and the lack of stable expectations and probable economic instability are likely to have played an impact on their vote.
Following the verbatim comments in the survey and presenting the words of voters, ‘Leave’ meant:
• ‘To regain control over our laws and money’,
• ‘Less control from Brussels’,
• ‘Immigration out of control’,
• ‘To get control of our country back’,
• ‘I don’t want our country to be watered down with red tape and bureaucracy from countries we fought against in two World Wars’,
• ‘A £320 million pounds a week going to the EU’,
• ‘Have the ABILITY to control borders’,
• ‘TO GET BRITAIN BACK FOR THE PEOPLE AND TO DEFEND OUR BORDERS’,
On the other hand, voters who chose to vote ‘Remain’ said:
• ‘To prevent economic uncertainty’,
• ‘Less uncertainty for the future & continuing trading with the EU’,
• ‘Unity with other countries’,
• ‘Peace in Europe through cooperation, trade and tackling climate change’,
• ‘No clear information. Blatant lies and confusion. Felt it was more about our dissatisfaction with our own government’,
• ‘Leaving would be madness/suicide’,
• ‘I consider myself European’,
• ‘Future for the young more important’.
• ‘I felt that the UK leaves itself vulnerable away from the EU’,
• ‘It’s common sense – Wales receives a lot of money from the EEC.’
Both sets of voters cited here convey a degree of certainty about the values underpinning their choice or concerns and fears towards the future, in some cases for young people’s future perspectives, and in others for direct funds to some regions. However, this sense of confidence or trust towards a better future in the EU was matched by widespread ambiguity about the options and the long-term impact of the vote:
• ‘I did not understand enough to put my opinion forward’,
• ‘I felt extremely let down by both sides and all the untruths they were telling’,
• ‘Not sure anymore!!!’
• ‘DIDN’T KNOW WHAT I WAS VOTING FOR’,
Concomitantly, there has been an immediate upsurge of disappointment for the general tone of the campaign, showing distrust towards political leaders – ‘(D)isgraceful campaigns by both sides for a horrible divisive referendum which should not have happened. Cameron should be tried for treason’ – but also the perception that there was ‘not enough impartial information’. These emotions seem to reflect the two sides of the vote. As immigration and the economy characterize the issue salience, among the emotions displayed the feeling about the future of the country post-referendum is ‘uncertainty’ that seems to persist across public opinion.
As we have already noted, most comments have underlined ‘anger’ as the factor that could mobilize the vote or could further emerge from the referendum outcome. Our findings highlight the emergence of uncertainty, which can further affect a slow, but attentive to details, decision-making process, and how further information is going to be processed.
The bi-directional nature of the relationship between emotions and decision making characterises the current state of the debate across public opinion and can well move into the negotiation process of leaving the EU, and affect future attitudes and decision making related to EU issues in Britain. Additionally, it is worth noting that emotions can affect different attitudes and behaviours, as uncertainty can make some voters more risk-averse; although, clearly, many citizens were ready to take the risk of the vote. Research shows that the intensity of the emotion can further increase, when knowledge and confidence are lower.
This leaves us with further research to address for the future of the Brexit negotiation process, and methodologically about the role of emotions and perceptions and attitudes and behaviours.
Theofanis Exadaktylos (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey. His research agenda includes research on: Europeanisation; politics of austerity in Europe; policy implementation and political trust; the rise of populism and the emergence of national stereotypes in the media. His work has appeared in, among others, the Journal of Common Market Studies and Policy Studies Journal. He is also the co-chair of the ECPR Standing Group on Political Methodology.
Simona Guerra (email@example.com) is Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Leicester and Senior Research Fellow at the LSEE (Research on South Eastern Europe) (May-December 2017). She has published, among others, in the Journal of Communist and Post-Communist Studies and the Journal of Common Market Studies, and is the author of Euroscepticism, Democracy and the Media: Communicating Europe, Contesting Europe (Palgrave, Series in European Political Sociology 2017) and Central and Eastern European Attitudes in the Face of Union (Palgrave 2013).
Roberta Guerrina (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey with a particular interest in European social policy, citizenship policy and gender equality. She has published in the area of women’s human rights, work-life balance, identity politics and the idea of Europe. She has published in, among others: the Journal of European Public Policy, International Affairs, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, Journal of Civil Society, Policy, Organisation and Society and Identities: Journal for Politics Gender and Culture. She is author of Mothering the Union: Gender Politics in the EU (Manchester University Press 2005) and Europe: History, Ideas and Ideologies (Arnold 2002).