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Chris Hilson – The EU Referendum: Brexit, Solidarity and Identity


By Professor Chris Hilson (School of Law, University of Reading)

The UK referendum on the EU has revealed interesting tensions around solidarity and identity. Free movement of people seems to have been a core concern for a significant proportion of Leave voters. Joseph Weiler once stated that the EU acts as a civilising influence to tame the passions of nationalism.[i] The single market principle of non-discrimination has been key to this: one cannot discriminate in favour of one’s own goods, services or people and against those from other EU Member States on the basis that the latter are somehow ‘not ours’. However, the view of many Leave voters is clearly that migrant workers from Poland or Romania are not the same as people coming to fill a job from another part of the UK. To them, EU migrant workers are not one of us in the way that a UK internal migrant worker is. Identity here is defined in ethno-cultural terms: large numbers of immigrants, especially when concentrated in particular areas, are perceived as threats to a British (or perhaps more accurately English) cultural identity. Of course, this predominantly white working class English identity has been eroded by the forces of the free market and globalisation, particularly since the era of Thatcherism in the 1980s. These forces led to large-scale de-industrialisation which has taken away the heart of particularly male identity centred around unionised industrial labour. But the EU, with its neoliberal single market policies including free movement of labour is seen as more of the same. Free movement is something that happens to these communities – they feel the effects of it. It is not something which they do and in which they have a sense of agency. Of course, both before and after the referendum, many commentators pointed to the irony that many of the poorest Leave constituencies are themselves net beneficiaries of EU solidarity in the form of structural funds.[ii] However, these hand-outs from above have, by themselves, barely been able to scratch the surface of the economic problems facing the relevant regions and certainly have not restored the provision of well-paid, full-time industrial jobs capable of providing hope and dignity.

The contrast with metropolitan voters on the Remain side – whether on the Left or Right of the political spectrum – could not be more striking. For those on the Right, a love of the single market requires little in the way of explanation: after all, Mrs Thatcher was famously a fan of the market elements of the Single European Act. For those on the Left, the sense of loss and despair following the referendum outcome is at first sight harder to understand. True, many were concerned about the impact that Leave would have on progressive workers’ and environmental rights that had effectively been constitutionalised as minimum standards within the EU Treaties, providing safe harbour from neoliberal national government attack.[iii] But many also seemed to feel genuine grief at the loss of single market free movement rights which they enjoyed as EU citizens. For them, free movement is something that they either already do as cosmopolitan citizens, or is valued as an option for studying, work or retirement for themselves or for their children. However, it goes beyond self-interest. There is also a sense of progressive solidarity and identification with those who have moved to the UK. For Remainers, people should not – as the Leave campaign was wont to – frame EU migrants as ‘others’ to be demonised and blamed for the ills besetting certain communities. They are the same as us. We are all EU citizens. To think otherwise is to risk aligning oneself with the dangerous forces of xenophobic nationalism. European identity here is in part cultural – cue the many post-referendum Facebook photos of Remainers consuming French or Spanish wine and cheese in celebration of the free movement of goods – but it is mostly civic. The EU Treaties are for many Remainers a genuine source of constitutional patriotism, enshrining civic rights and freedoms (both neoliberal and progressive) that shape their sense of political identity as European citizens. The removal of these rights and freedoms by Brexit is keenly felt.[iv] In the days after the referendum social media was abuzz with those seeking out ancestry that might enable them to retain their EU citizenship by securing nationality of another Member State. Others discussed moving abroad – either due to the shame of living in a country that had voted for Leave based on a sordid campaign with a shocking racist aftermath, or with a view to establishing residence rights (and hence nationality and EU citizenship) elsewhere. There was even a petition doing the rounds asking the EU to grant EU citizenship to UK citizens.[v]

While some of these reactions were derided as a form of collective liberal hysteria, reminiscent of populist public outpourings of grief in relation to the death of Princess Diana,[vi] perhaps more important was the accusation that the relevant Remainers were seeing the EU through rose-tinted spectacles, thereby ignoring the EU’s dark underbelly.[vii] Chief among the EU’s failures pointed to by the Leave campaign were the treatment of Greece and also its response to the 2015-16 migrant crisis. Both involved a failure of European solidarity. In the case of Greece, economically prudent German citizens felt little in the way of solidarity with their profligate Greek cousins. And with the substantial numbers of migrants fleeing from Turkey and North Africa, there was not much solidarity shown by those Member States who were reluctant to accept their fair share of the refugee burden. Rather than acknowledging the EU’s woefully inadequate reaction to these crises, the typical Remain response was either to claim UK exceptionalism (the UK not being part of the Eurozone or part of Schengen) or to assert that Brexit would not make such crises disappear.

There are essentially two contrasting views on how the EU should respond both to these and to the new Brexit crisis. The first is to advocate ‘more Europe’ for the remaining 27 Member States with further, deepening integration towards the ever closer Union envisaged by the Treaties. The second argues for a more flexible EU with less of a one-size-fits-all approach. The problem with the first of these is of course one of solidarity again: the solidaristic underpinning for building a more centralised federal European state is at the same time necessary and yet (because of resentment over issues such as Greece and the migration crisis) increasingly absent. Rather than e pluribus unum (out of many, one) we seem instead to be faced with ex uno plures (out of an attempt to create one, with policy errors like the Euro we have ended up with many). What remains unclear at this stage is whether Brexit will have the effect of galvanising European public opinion in favour of further integration or whether it will act instead as a catalyst for contagious disintegration. While Far-Right Eurosceptic leaders argued for the latter soon after the Brexit result was announced,[viii] more recent opinion polls pointing to a post-Brexit rise in support for the EU[ix] mean that the former cannot yet be ruled out.

[i] J Weiler ‘To be a European citizen – Eros and civilization’ (1997) 4 Journal of European Public Policy 495.

[ii] eg P Hetherington, ‘Brexit would widen the north-south divide as poorest areas stand to lose most’, The Guardian, 21 June 2016.

[iii] H Benn, ‘The leave campaign would scrap workers’ rights. It must tell us which ones’, The Guardian, 6 June 2016; J Sauven, ‘Why green groups have a right to be heard on the EU referendum’, The Guardian, 7 March 2016.

[iv] H Rifkind, ‘Brexit’s making many of us less British’, The Spectator, 9 July 2016; C Dickson, ‘In Brexit aftermath, some young Brits consider moving abroad’, Yahoo News, 29 June 2016.


[vi] B Johnson, ‘Tory candidates need a plan for Brexit – here’s mine in 5 points’, The Telegraph, 3 July 2016.

[vii] J Gray, ‘The strange death of liberal politics’, New Statesman, 5 July 2016.

[viii] A Chrisafis, ‘European far right hails Brexit vote’, The Guardian, 24 June 2016.

[ix] P Oltermann and others, ‘Brexit causes resurgence in pro-EU leanings across continent’, The Guardian, 8 July 2016.

‘Brexit: Democracy, Markets and the Regions’, DELI/LGJD Joint Insta-Symposium

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