‘Brexit’ appealed more to the ‘losers’ of globalization than its ‘winners’

Voters’ hopes and fears about globalization were a key factor in June’s vote for ‘Brexit’ – and will continue to challenge the political establishment for years to come, according to a new study.

Writing in the Journal of European Public Policy, Sara B. Hobolt of the London School of Economics and Political Science analyses campaign and survey data to understand the shock result – and what it might mean for the future of Europe.

Although the choice was a simple one – between ‘in’ or ‘out’ – the British public was divided about what the main referendum issue was. Concern about the loss of economic stability and the economic benefits of EU membership resonated with Remain voters, while Leave voters highlighted issues relating to immigration and national identity.

Looking at the data, Hobolt writes: “Fears of immigration and multiculturalism are more pronounced among voters with lower levels of education and in a more vulnerable position in the labour market. Such voters also voted most decisively for Leave, whereas the ‘winners’ of globalization – the younger and highly educated professionals – were overwhelmingly in favour of Remain.”

In Hobolt’s view, there is no immediate danger of ‘contagion’ from the Brexit vote spurring on membership referenda in other European countries – in fact, it’s probably made them less likely – but the outlook isn’t entirely rosy.

She observes: “Across Europe we find similar divisions between the so-called winners of globalization and those who feel left behind. While the former tend to embrace European integration and multiculturalism, the latter feel threatened by the changes that globalization and European integration have brought about.”

It’s clear that the challenges the EU now faces go beyond any economic and political fallout from Brexit: many voters now see the EU as part of the problem, rather than the solution, when it comes to protecting them from the consequences of globalization. 

Commenting on her study earlier this month, Hobolt said: “The outcome of the Brexit vote came as a shock to the political establishment in Britain and across Europe. Yet, the electoral success of anti-establishment and anti-immigration messages is not unique to this referendum, but fuel the support for populist parties in the continent as well. The growing divide between winners and losers of globalization explains much of this appeal.”

Her study concludes: “The challenge for European leaders, both domestically and at the European level, is to find a way of addressing the concerns of the many citizens who have not felt the economic benefits of free trade and globalization, and who feel that their distinct national identity and culture is under threat from immigration and European integration.”