The Brexit Vote, One Year Later
On June 23, 2016, citizens in the United Kingdom voted 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union, sending shockwaves around the world and raising concerns about a new type of populism on both sides of the Atlantic. The common explanation of Brexit presents it as a revolt by the losers of globalization. As the international movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people has intensified, this argument runs, the latter shaped the referendum results most profoundly. The intra-European flow of migrants from east to west, combined with the potential for an influx of refugees in 2015, convinced many British citizens that they stood on the losing end of a globalized, borderless Europe.
Although this story captures important dynamics, it misses crucial historical developments that influenced British leaders’ decision to hold the referendum, as well as its outcome. Four trends converged to lead the United Kingdom to split with the EU: a divergence between the United Kingdom and the continent about the meaning of the European project and the nature of sovereignty; a gradual estrangement of British political parties from the public; the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis; and Brussels’ lackluster management of the EU’s problems. These developments help explain why the message of Leave resonated and that of Remain proved counterproductive. They reveal, moreover, just how fragile and elite-driven the European project remains.
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