Event Summary: Brexit

Moira Pulitzer-Kennedy • August 20, 2016 • Boston, Event Summary

On August 18th, the Civic Series welcomed Professor Graham Wilson of Boston University to Workbar Boston to discuss Brexit, the United Kingdom’s recent decision, by referendum, to leave the European Union (EU). Before Laur introduced Professor Wilson, she set the ground rules for the evening. At each Civic Series, it is made clear that there are no dumb questions! We are all here to learn, and to get clarity on complex current events that are not always fully explained in the news. And everyone gets to ask one question before a round of seconds begins. On this evening, Laur also introduced a new event sponsor, Cidergeist (of Rhinegeist), a Cincinnati-based producer of hard ciders available for all in attendance.

During his presentation, Professor Wilson discussed the factors leading up to Brexit, the demographic features of the Brexit vote, and the impact that the leave vote has had and may continue to have into the future. He asserted that the UK was never really sold on the political advantages of being in the EU, and that the reasons to stay were always economic. For some, with the rise of xenophobia and English nationalism, leaving the EU in order to curb immigration and remain outside of Brussels’ rule became more attractive than staying. In an effort to secure more votes for his party while running for office, David Cameron (Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016) promised that if elected, he would call for a referendum on this issue.

On June 23, the UK voted to leave the European Union, 52% to 48%. For those who voted leave, Professor Wilson asserted, patriotism and a desire to “take back control” was a major driver. Those who voted to leave were mainly comprised of older voters, perhaps holding on to memories of the British Empire. Younger voters, enjoying freedom of movement throughout Europe to work and study, were much more likely to vote remain. People who identified as British, versus English, were also much more likely to vote remain. Professor Wilson also asserted that leave voters were driven by a sense of deprivation which didn’t always align with their actual experience. For instance, the auto-producing area of Sunderland was strongly pro-leave, but has a very low rate of immigration. Still, the resistance to the outside taking over jobs, control, or sense of Englishness, may have promoted a vote to leave.

While the leave vote was higher among Conservative Party members, still 37% of Labour Party members voted leave, which, Professor Wilson explained, is already beginning to have serious consequences for Labour. The majority of Labour MPs are calling for party leader Jeremy Corbyn to step down, fearing that as over a third of Labour voted to leave, following him will make the party virtually unelectable. But Corbyn plans to run for re-election and will probably be re-elected by the voters, made up of paid-up party members.

So what other impacts will Brexit have? At the moment, a key challenge for the nation is that there is no plan for how to approach leave negotiations with the EU. Will the UK pursue soft-Brexit and pay into the EU’s budget for certain market access? Will they break completely and seek admittance into the WTO on their own terms and negotiate new trade agreements? It is apparent that Brexit will have negative consequences for London’s financial institutions, and the EU has made it clear that if the UK wants their banks to be able to trade freely on European markets, they must allow EU citizens to move freely across their borders (the very thing that leave voters were seeking to prevent). It remains to be seen how Brexit will impact the UK economy, but other effects are inevitable. Will Scotland vote again to leave the UK and seek admittance into the EU? How will the peace process in Northern Ireland be affected, now that the border between Ireland (in the EU) and the UK (soon-to-be outside the EU) is no longer soft? How will the UK’s departure impact US interests in the EU? It all remains to be seen.

About the speaker:

Professor Graham Wilson is at Boston University’s Political Science Department and is the co-founder and Director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities. Professor Wilson joined the Faculty of Boston University in 2007 where he served as Chair of the Political Science Department until 2015. His areas of specialization include American Politics, Comparative Politics, Business and Government, and Interest Groups. Professor Wilson received his BA and Doctorate of Philosophy from Oxford University and his MA from the University of Essex.

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