About 2 years ago, I was packing my bags to move from Bristol (that has been my home for 2 years), to Frankfurt (my current home for nearly 2 years). One month after my move, Brexit happened. Needless to say, I was shocked and disappointed by the results of the vote partly because, within the academic community I lived in, Brexit was something unfathomable. I, for the first time, realized that my own bubble made me be myopic to the true state of the British society.
Two years on I look at Brexit and try to understand more about the factors that determined it?
Of course, if you read the media, British or non-British, there is a common rhetoric that Brexit happened because (shortly) prior to the vote there was a vitriolic campaign against the EU that was full of manipulation. That’s actually true, the campaign was a show of populism, faulty logic and arguments based on anything but facts.
But was there a deeper sentiment within the British society against the EU? Yes. A very deeply entrenched anti-EU sentiment that was brewing for a long time and it has been left unaddressed by politicians and in general, by media. Sure, this is more or less my opinion that there wasn’t a true debate in the past 10 years about the real benefits of the EU.
I also think that people are sensitive to economic issues and base their vote and opinion on how they feel in general about the state of the economy (e.g. if they have a good job and can eat well and have shelter the propensity to ask for change decreases). The UK economy has been doing pretty well. But how about the sentiment regarding the EU?
There is one big difference between satisfying your needs and having secure employment and thinking that this is the case. Reality and perception are two different thing that might not have any common ground. So, to cut to the chase, what did the British think about the EU? Did they think that they have benefited or not from the UK being a member of the EU?
Let’s have a look at the data and at how the citizens of the UK answered when asked about whether their country has benefited from being a member of the EU (source European Barometer)
Looking at the data, we see that from 2001 onward, the sentiments that the UK doesn’t benefit from the EU has increased, I would say, considerably. While before 2001 the opinions were split, the data after 2001 shows that the percentage of people who didn’t know what their opinion was on this matter shrunk. While we don’t know how the swing was, we can perhaps assume that the increase in the percentage of people who thought that they didn’t benefit from the EU was at the expense of the “don’t knows”.
This proves that the perceived utility of memberships declined. What were the factors that determined? I assume they are many and their intersection made it difficult for anybody to predict it. When you look at the chart above it may seem so obvious that there was a deeper divide between opinions and that someone should have predicted it. But the truth is that this chart alone doesn’t tell much. It just a mere reflection of societal attitudes that are influenced by a plethora of other factors, including how media has portrayed the EU.
It is advisable though for anybody interested in predicting future political and social outcomes to keep a watchful eye on such indicators. They might mirror greater issues in the society.