The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, at a Brexit-party in Westminster.

How Brexit won

Svenska 2016-11-08

In June, 52 percent of the British people voted for the UK to leave the EU. The results of the referendum came as a shock to the country’s researchers, who have benefited from EU membership. Curie finds out why Brexit won.

By tradition, the United Kingdom is not a country that invests heavily in research and development. Compared with other EU countries, it lies somewhere roughly in the middle, according to Adrian Bird, professor of genetics at the University of Edinburgh.

It can be compared to the EU’s research budget Horizon 2020, where the UK receives more for research from the EU than it gives. In total, however, the UK pays more into the EU in fees than it receives in contributions, which is the general situation for the wealthier countries.

At the same time, the cost doesn’t say anything about the economic and political value of collaboration – an added value which is often perceived as being abstract, says Ian Manners, professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen.

“The problem is that the effects are slow and complicated. We are not going to see any immediate effect if we close our borders.”

He also points out that when the UK first joined the EU, the economic effects were not noticeable until 20 years later.

Old conflicts could flare up again

He emphasises that the UK’s divorce from the EU could have socio-political consequences. There is a risk that old conflicts could flare up again.

“When the UK severs its ties with the EU, there is an increased risk of renewed conflict in Northern Ireland and between the UK and other countries such as, for example, France and Spain.”

In the UK, just as in Sweden, most people only have a vague idea of what EU membership actually means for their own country. Voter turnout in EU elections is usually lower than in the member states’ national elections, says Torbjörn Larsson, political scientist at Stockholm University.

“Also, the UK has always had a very sceptical attitude to the EU – it wants to be a part of it but, at the same time, it wants to remain outside. Margaret Thatcher negotiated several concessions, such as the discount on the membership fee and remaining outside the single currency and the Schengen Agreement.”

“Above all, they have been interested in the economic union, not the political union. And they have always been sceptical about the free movement of labour.”

Lies were spread

The EU’s single market stimulates the economy by allowing goods, services, capital and people to – as far as is possible – have freedom of movement. But the risk of losing this freedom does not seem to have deterred those who voted for Brexit.

This is perhaps because of the inaccurate claims that were spread during the Brexit campaign, such as that the UK would still be able to have access to the single market even without membership of the EU.

“The idea that the country would automatically be able to become an ‘associate member’ of the EU, as Norway is, was the biggest lie that was spread in the media”, believes Ian Manners.

Anne Glover, vice principal of the University of Aberdeen and former scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, agrees with this line of thinking.

“People seemed to just ignore the facts. Many economists stressed that, if the UK left the EU, this would affect the UK’s access to the internal market”, she says.

Misleading claims were not corrected

Torbjörn Larsson also points to the fact that the nation’s press spread incorrect information. One high-profile example of this was that the Brexit campaign claimed that the UK sends £ 350 million pounds to the EU every week. Several experts pointed out that this figure was incorrect.

“But the Brexit campaign didn’t correct it”, says Anne Glover.

Ian Manners feels that it is tough to be an EU expert today.

“EU experts have to be very cautious in Denmark and the UK. The extreme right will exploit any chance to attack them on social media. They don’t like the EU or foreigners.”

Half-hearted advocates of the EU

At the same time, advocates of continued EU membership in both main political parties (Labour and Conservative) were not particularly visible, says Torbjörn Larsson.

“Those who are on the side of the EU were lukewarm.”

The issue that, above all else, dominated the Brexit debate was immigration. But here too it was sometimes very confused, believes Torbjörn Larsson.

“People happily mixed up the concept of free movement with the issue of migration and asylum. The EU is not about refugees – it is about the free movement of labour.”

The ability of people to easily move around is beneficial to economic growth, according to the American model.

“In the USA, people aren’t afraid to move to where the work is.”

Unemployment and austerity

When the former Eastern-bloc states acceded to the EU in 2004, a flow of labour moved from Poland and the Czech Republic to the UK. More workers went to the UK than to other EU countries because of the strong economy and their ability to speak English. They compete with the Brits for the low-paid work.

Another factor is that, for the past two years, the UK has imposed a policy of austerity, with budget cuts in the public sector.

“Many people are angry”, says Torbjörn Larsson. “They may be out of work and life is tough.”

According to Ian Manners, these hard times are a result of the British government’s decision to save instead of stimulating the economy by means of different measures, according to the theory of supply-side economics. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council, this policy led to vulnerable groups in society being worse off.

“But in the Brexit campaign they blamed the EU and not the decisions made by the government”, says Ian Manners.

Great mistrust

Mistrust of the establishment is a major problem. The people who voted for Brexit were primarily older and less well-educated. But even the less well-educated are at risk of suffering from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, believes both Anne Glover and Torbjörn Larsson.

Without access to the EU’s single market, the UK will experience economic problems. There is the possibility to negotiate some access to the internal market, as Norway has done. However, Norway pays a large fee to the EU and, via the EEA Agreement, accepts the free movement of labour.

Anne Glover is sceptical about whether the current government under the new prime minister Theresa May would agree to this.

“They are repeatedly stating that they do not intend to drop their demand to significantly limit immigration from EU countries.”

A new referendum is unlikely

Theresa May has stated that she intends to trigger Article 50 – i.e. the formal request to leave the EU – in March 2017. After this, the UK will have two years within which to negotiate new agreements with the EU before the country, in practice, leaves the EU.

There is a theoretical opportunity for a change of heart during this period. Some believe that a second referendum should be held once the negotiations have been completed – it is only then that people will know what they are voting for.

But Torbjörn Larsson is doubtful that this will happen.

“As it stands at the moment, this is hardly likely.”

Read more in Curie:

Uncertain future for British research without the EU

Text: Anja Castensson
Photo: Ben Cawthra / Eyevine