Almost six years ago, on June 23rd, 2016, the people of the United Kingdom (UK) voted in a referendum to leave the European Union (EU). Four years later, on the 31st of January, the UK left the EU and entered a transition period. During the transition period (or the “implementation period”), the UK was no longer a member of the EU. However, it remained a member of the single market and customs union, continuing to be subject to EU rules until 31 December 2020. There were various factors that influenced the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Two years later, Brexit is still a topic of political, media, and public discourse, and continues to impact the UK’s economy, culture and society in various ways. This article will explore the process of Brexit and its different implications.
Different concepts of Europe
Europe in its ancient past has been mainly seen as a geographical concept. According to the Greeks, the world consisted of Europe, Asia, and Libya (later called Africa) (Swedberg, 1994).
In mythology, however, Europe (or Europa), was a beautiful princess. According to Hesiod in his Theogony, Zeus fell in love with Europe, abducted her, and lured her away to Crete by sending a white bull to charm the princess and carry her away from Phoenicia (Catwright, 2018).
Etymologically, the original meaning of the word “Europe” is not clear. Some scholars argue that the origin of the name Europe comes from the Semitic Akkadian language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The Akkadian word ‘erebu’, means “sunset”. In addition to this, the western-setting sun descended on Europe. According to the ancient Greek language, ‘eurys’ means “wide” and ‘ops’, ‘opsis’ or ‘optikos’ means “face”, “sight”, or “eye”. Thus, “wide-gazing” is considered by some as the appropriate description of Europe’s broad shoreline that could be seen from the shipboard perspective of the maritime Greeks (Wallendeldt at Britannica).
The roots of the EU – How did the EU begin?
The creation of what is known as today’s European Union began in 1950-1951. This began when Jean Monnet began the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. Monnet was a French entrepreneur, diplomat, financier, administrator, and political visionary. He was an influential supporter of European unity and today, he’s considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union, among people such as Konrad Adenauer, Joseph Bech, Johan Beyen, and Winston Churchill.
The EU traces its origins back to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC). The two organizations were created after World War II by the Treaty of Paris, in 1951. The Schuman Declaration encouraged the establishment of the ECSC and the proper creation of a common market in coal and steel between European states. This was proposed to make war between them unthinkable as coal and steel were necessary ingredients to make war. The result of this was aimed to make the countries economically and politically intertwined. This was to ensure that they work together as equal partners and within common organizations.
Desire to prevent wars from happening again
After the six years of war, there was a “desire to tie Europe’s nations so closely together that they could never again wreak such damage on each other” (Wilson, 2014). Thus, the original aim of the EU was to end the frequent and bloody wars between neighbors and prevent them from happening again. In 1957, with the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic Community was established and a common internal market was created. At the time, the original member states (later known as the European Communities) were Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.
The EEC was officially replaced with a new name – “European Union” in 1992 with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Over the years, the communities and their successors have expanded by way of the accession of new member states to the Union. Today, there are 27 countries in the European Union.
Why did the UK join the European Union?
The UK has been a member of the EU for 47 years. Throughout the years, the UK’s relationship with the EU has been a complicated one, causing debates between Eurosceptics and Europhiles.
In 1951, when the European Coal and Steel Community was created, Britain declined an invitation to join the six founding nations of the EEC. Jean Monnet said “I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change.” (Wilson, 2014). As the years went by, Britain began to see a strong alliance and post-war recovery between France and Germany. As a result, Britain changed its mind. The UK first applied to join the EU (known as the EEC at the time) in 1961. The French government vetoed the application in 1963. In 1967, it was vetoed again by the French government.
In 1973, Britain finally got into the EEC. In 1975, when membership was put to a referendum, Britain’s three main parties and all its national newspapers were in favor. The joining helped to halt Britain’s relative economic decline. Ever since its joining, the UK’s per capita GPD has been comparatively stable (Campos and Coricelli, 2015). However, the UK’s GDP per capita growth was not as colorful in comparison with its European neighbors. It has increased by only 10% since 2015. Meanwhile, for Germany, it grew by 24%, and for France, by 18% (Walker, 2022).
Brexit is a blend of the words “British” and “exit”. It is used to mean the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In 2020, the UK left the EU due to factors related to sovereignty, immigration, the economy, and anti-establishment politics amongst various other influences.
One of the factors for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was the dysfunction of the EU in terms of the economy. The Eu failed to address the economic problems that had been developing since 2008. One of them being 20% unemployment in southern Europe. This is significantly different than the 4.2% unemployment in Germany (Friedman, 2016).
The second reason for Brexit was the growing nationalism across the world. Many people who oppose the EU believe that it does not serve its purpose. The growing distrust in the EU is based on the belief that it takes control away from individual nations (Friedman, 2016).
Another major factor in Brexit was the fear of immigration. The majority of people who are worried about immigration voted Leave, compared with 36% of those who did not identify immigration as a concern. The EU’s freedom of movement provisions allows for high levels of immigration. The integration of new migrants with the new society and culture is often a long and complex process (Friedman, 2016).
High levels of immigration lead to social change. For some existing residents in the UK, this social change can create challenges that make them feel uncomfortable. This, in turn, leads to hostile attitudes towards immigrants and immigration in general and therefore, causes them to vote against EU membership (British Social Attitudes).
Brexit’s relationship with nationality and identity
Whether people want to be part of the EU or not is often based on the sense of their European identity (how European they feel themselves to be). A strong sense of European identity has been fostered by common European citizenship. On the other hand, individuals who feel strongly British are more supportive of Brexit. Those with more diverse cultural consumption were more likely to vote for Britain to remain in the EU (UCL, 2021).
Generally, however, UK national identities are complex. The country is made up of British, English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Northern Irish identities. They are often combined or multiple. People with a British identity represent a majority of the population that voted for Brexit. Other, relatively small minorities, such as the Irish, Scottish, or Europeans are more likely to be in favor of remaining in the EU. As a result of this, there is a conflict between national identities (Richards and Heath, 2019).
According to Langlois and Michaud (2021), “as a nation, Britain seems to have lost track of what holds it together. The four nations no longer adhere to London’s domination, multiculturalism is now perceived as a failure, as are the country’s European ambitions.” For those in favor of Brexit, leaving the EU was seen as the last attempt to regain confidence and control in the everchanging world. However, when taking into consideration that Scotland and Northern Ireland hold different views from England and Wales, there becomes a challenge as to how these four nations can work together post-Brexit.
National, racial, and religious prejudice in Britain
Despite being a diverse nation, discrimination is one of the main social issues in the UK. Attitudes towards people of other races and nationalities have been changing over the years. According to the 2005 National Survey, attitudes towards legal migration in the UK at the time were largely positive. 48% of respondents reported being supportive of legal migration, in comparison with 19% negative. The attitudes have dramatically changed less than 10 years later. The Migration Observatory survey showed that 53% of respondents reported negativity towards immigration, and 21% reported being positive (Hutchings and Sullivan, 2019).
The UK struggles with national, racial, and religious prejudice, which tends to be reflected in some negativity towards immigration. It is not clear to what extent negative attitudes toward immigration and prejudice played a role in votes for Brexit. However, there is no doubt that this was one of the main social issues that were used in many discussions leading up to Brexit. Issues of immigration and border control were the key factors that played a role in the increase of hostile attitudes towards immigrants and led in some way to many people casting a vote for Brexit (Hutchings and Sullivan, 2019).
Migration to the UK in the year of Brexit
Shortly before the referendum in May 2016, the net migration of EU citizens to the UK was 184,000. While the non-EU net migration was 188,000. At the time, 308,000 people were classified as migrating for work purposes, and 130,000 (42%) immigrated to look for work. There were over 41,000 asylum applications from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Syria. This was a 30% increase from the previous year (Hutchings and Sullivan, 2019)..
Brexit impacts since the 2016 referendum
Since the UK left the UK, there have been significant economic, political, and social changes. The uncertainty around Brexit has slowed down economic growth. The pound has fallen 18% below its level before the EU referendum in 2016. Inflation has increased along with unemployment. House prices have fallen for the first time since 2009. The increased cost of living will most likely have a disproportionate effect on low-income households (Scottish Government, 2020).
In addition to this, there has been a rise in hate crime and prejudice in England and Wales, since the 2016 referendum. According to the charity Show Racism the Red Card, Brexit has played a major role in the rise of racism and race-related hate crime in England and Wales. The spike in hate crime has been reported particularly three months directly after the referendum (Scottish Government, 2020). However, according to Jonathan Portes, generally, attitudes towards immigration have become more positive since Brexit (The Week, 2022).
Another Brexit-related impact is on the labor market. EU nationals leaving the UK has compounded a recruitment crisis in the NHS and the social care sector, and negatively affected people who use these services, such as disabled people, older people, people with long-term illnesses, pregnant women, and others (Scottish Government, 2020).
On the other hand, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, argues that one of the reasons why Brexit should be celebrated is that the UK was the first to start vaccinating citizens against Covid-19 “at least partly because of Brexit”. As a result of this, Johnson claims that the UK is recovering from the impacts of Covid faster than any other European country (Scottish Government, 2020). However, this was actually permitted under EU law, which was confirmed by the UK’s own medicines regulator, the MHRA (The Week, 2022).
Cultural significance of Brexit in anthropology
Brexit is a complex process that involves multiple nations in different ways. The Brexit vote focused on the calls to take back control from an “undemocratic” EU (Wilson, 2o20). There is still a lot of disagreement within the UK in terms of Brexit and whether leaving the EU was a good decision or not. However, when the UK was a member of the EU there were also various turbulent times, crises, and divisions.
Brexit is significant for anthropology because it offers insight into the solidarity behaviors of Europeans that are tied directly or indirectly to the Brexit process (Wilson, 2020). On the other hand, it provides an understanding of British culture and the complexities related to the British national identity. Despite different views, Brexit shouldn’t be viewed as a cause but as a symptom or an indicator of social and cultural issues within British society that need to be addressed by the UK government.
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Campos, N. and Coricelli, F. (2015) “Why did Britain Join the EU? A New Insight From Economic History”. Available: voxeu.org
Cartwright, M. (2018) “Europa: Definition”. World History Encyclopedia. Available: worldhistory.org
European Cultural Foundation. “Brexit and a Cultural Way Forward, Together”. Available: culturalfoundation.eu
Friedman, G. (2016) “3 Reasons Brits Voted For Brexit”. Available: forbes.com
Hutchings, P., B. and Sullivan, K., E. (2019) “Prejudice and the Brexit Vote: a Tangled Web”. Available: nature.com
Richards, L. and Heath, A. (2019) “Brexit and Public Opinion: National Identity and Brexit Preferences”. Available: ukandeu.ac.uk
Swedberg, R. (1994) “The Idea of ‘Europe’ and the Origin of the European Union – A Sociological Approach”. Available:degruyter.com
UCL (2021) “Brexit Driven by Cultural Values and National Identity More Than Social Class”. Available: ucl.ac.uk
Walker, B. (2022) “How the UK Became the Sick Man of Europe Again?”. Available: newstatesman.com
Wallenfeldt, J. “Where Does the Name Europe Come From?”. Available: britannica.com
Wilson, S. (2014) “Britain and the EU: A Long and Rocky Relationship”. Available: bbc.co.uk
Wilson, T. (2020) “Anthropological Approaches to Why Brexit Matters”. Available: ee.openlibhums.org