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Identity Politics And Brexit

06 December 2018
Identity Politics And Brexit

In recent years, anti-European sentiment has grown in members of the European Union and Euro-sceptic parties have gained power, attracting the attention of European Union experts in terms of the negative influence of these developments on the integration movement.

Throughout the European Union, Euro-sceptic parties are active and powerful on the political scene, counting among them the Front National in France, the Five Stars Movement in Italy, SYRIZA in Greece and the Law and Justice in Poland. The main characteristic of Euro-sceptic parties is that they take up an opposition position to the transfer of sovereign rights of member states, which leads to the questioning of the legitimacy of the European integration movement.  The questioning of the legitimacy of the European integration movement is an “existential threat” to the EU, in the words of European Commission President Juncker. [1]

Anti-European sentiment among the citizens of member states empowers Euro-sceptic parties, which in turn provoke more anti-European sentiment in a circle of cause and effect, with the European Union and member states becoming rivals. However, the idea that the European Union and member states are in competition leads to the bizarre deduction that throughout the history of integration, member states have created a rival for themselves in the form of the European Union, willingly an through their own efforts.   

The reason underlying the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is the common understanding within the political class and people of Britain that there is competition between the European Union and the United Kingdom.  The Brexit process, which is an outcome of this perception of competition, has led to the European Union being made the “other” in the foreign policy of the United Kingdom. There are also claims that supporters of leaving the EU have been made “others” through identity politics in domestic UK politics.

Identity politics are, briefly put, politics that are ran over permanent or semi-permanent elements of identity such as race, sex or culture. [2] As Fukuyama puts it, the divisions that existed over economic matters for much of the 20th century are now centred around identity and this shows that the main axis of politics is shifting.  [3] As the main axis of politics shifts, experts point out that identity politics, which originated with the left, is being used effectively by the right. 

The process by which the politics of identity brought the United Kingdom to withdraw from European Union membership began with discourse in internal politics focusing on sovereignty, transfer of sovereign rights to the EU, border control and foreign trade. These issues had always been debated around the relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union but as London and Brussels began to differ, especially on the issues of free movement of persons and migration, these concepts began to weight more heavily in domestic British politics. As a result in became an aim of London to recover the sovereign rights transferred to the European Union.

In this context the European identity trying to be formed under the European Union became a counter-identity, the “other” for the United Kingdom.  The European Union becoming the “other”, is a result of the approach of no “what you are” but “what you are opposed to” and from this perspective, as Reeves has put it, “being British is being not European”. [4]

Therefore, the Euro-sceptic voters who did not adopt the “European identity" that the EU is trying to construct and who saw the supra-national identity building efforts of the EU as a threat to their own identity voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum. [5]

The main factors that affected the decision of the leave voters were identity, sovereignty and migration. Despite knowledge of the potentially negative economic outcomes of the Brexit decision, the voters were not guided by economic issues, which is an indicator of the how alienated British society had become towards the EU.

Therefore, Brexit, as a symbol of the heights Euro-scepticism can reach, is also a prime example of how politics today is shaped by identity rather than economic issues.

Claims that it was not just the EU that was made the other during the Brexit process but there were those within British society who were made into others requires examination given the increasing influence of identity politics in Europe.  According to this claim, leave-voters have been marginalised by remain-voters and British society is becoming polarised.

Who are those who want to leave the EU and those who want to remain in the United Kingdom? Studies on Brexit show that the well-educated young population living in large urban areas voted to remain, while the less-educated older population living in rural areas voted to leave. [6]  As voter preferences are affected by factors such as education, age and economic status, there is nothing strange about the profiling of leave and remain voters in Brexit. However, leave-voters have been caricaturised as a result of this profiling and they are described using negative adjectives such as racist, anti-migration, sexist and xenophobic and are thus “demonised”.[7] The British press has given the statements by Liberal Democrat Sir Vince Cable as an example of this attitude: Cable had described leave-voters as nostalgic elderly types and said that this older generation had crushed the dreams of the young.[8]  

In this process of polarisation in the United Kingdom, leave-voters are being displayed as a problem for the United Kingdom. As Cobley has underlined, it is a problem in itself to paint those with opposing views as a problem, which is exacerbated when the problem is linked to sex, skin colour and age. [9]

Therefore the Brexit process involves two processes of alienation, aimed at the European Union and the leave-voters. The first puts the European Union as the other, while the second the leave-voters. When the United Kingdom leaves the EU, the EU will officially become the “other” for the British, but the influence of the process of marginalisation and polarisation among the British people will not end with Brexit.

 This article previously published in The Diplomatic Observer November Issue 2018

[1], 3 March 2017

[2], 2018

[3], 30 September 2018

[4], 24 June 2016

[5] N. Gidron ve P. A. Hall (2017) Brexit appealed to White working-class men who feel society no longer values them,

[6], 1 February 2017

[7] B. Cobley, How remainers are using identity politics to demonise Brexiteers,, 23 July 2018

[8], 11 March 2018

[9] B. Cobley, How remainers …