d|part note on Brexit

By Dr Jan Eichhorn.

© European Union 2012.

When it became clear on Fri­day morn­ing that the Unit­ed King­dom had decid­ed to leave the Euro­pean Union in a ref­er­en­dum a mix­ture of shock and joy could be heard depend­ing on the com­men­ta­tors talked to. On most parts of the con­ti­nent con­cerns seemed to over­ride pos­i­tive views, but what was com­mon in most con­tri­bu­tions to the dis­cus­sions that have fol­lowed since was a mix of expla­na­tions for the out­come and spec­u­la­tion about the impli­ca­tions. The impli­ca­tions of the ref­er­en­dum will be long last­ing and impact­ful on many domains, includ­ing the diplo­mat­ic and eco­nom­ic but also regard­ing ques­tions about civic engage­ment and demo­c­ra­t­ic legitimacy.

As a think tank ded­i­cat­ed to using empir­i­cal evi­dence to shape dis­cus­sions about polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, mak­ing research use­ful for prac­tice in this field, the qual­i­ty of debates dur­ing this ref­er­en­dum have to be eval­u­at­ed as appalling – irre­spec­tive of which side of the argu­ment one­self may have been. There is no need for a rep­e­ti­tion of the numer­ous claims and coun­ter­claims that have been made which were mas­sive exag­ger­a­tions at best and objec­tive­ly false at worst. While polit­i­cal debate always has room for opin­ion and nor­ma­tive­ly dis­tinc­tive inter­pre­ta­tions there are also state­ments that can clear­ly be appraised as true or false.

This cam­paign was ridicu­lous­ly short. Those ini­ti­at­ing it who claimed that this was about democ­ra­cy and gen­uine par­tic­i­pa­tion have dis­qual­i­fied them­selves by this set­up. The ques­tion of whether a coun­try should be a mem­ber of the EU or not is more com­plex than a trade-off between the ques­tion of over­all eco­nom­ic impacts and the ques­tion of whether bor­der con­trols can be estab­lished or not. The two themes end­ed up dom­i­nat­ing the debate, but because of the brevi­ty the mes­sages had to be sim­ple and on nei­ther side of it did they do jus­tice to the actu­al mech­a­nisms under­ly­ing the claims made.

Eco­nom­ic impacts are not a sim­ple func­tion of trade, but stand in an inter­play with cur­ren­cy devel­op­ments, wages, sub­sti­tu­tion effects and glob­al devel­op­ments. At the same time the extent of immi­gra­tion does not sim­ply depend on EU mem­ber­ship – pro­jec­tions into the future are mean­ing­less if they assume that no cir­cum­stances could change and bor­der con­trol is not the same as polit­i­cal will to actu­al­ly change anything.

In a cli­mate where mes­sages remain super­fi­cial, it is not the argu­ment that wins, it is the extent of the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the mes­sen­gers com­bined with the points they try to put for­ward. The remain cam­paign includ­ed many peo­ple who for many years scape­goat­ed the EU for all ills, while the leave side real­ly increased their share of the polls when the immi­gra­tion mes­sage, that many of their lead­ing fig­ures had a long track record of empha­sis­ing, became their dom­i­nant and shared talk­ing point com­bined with the notion of “tak­ing con­trol of one’s own coun­try” – a point that is so vague and allows for so many pro­jec­tions into it that it near­ly evades any empir­i­cal engage­ment (except for the actu­al ques­tion about the vol­ume of immi­gra­tion that was nev­er entire­ly clar­i­fied dur­ing the campaign).

Scep­tics may say that such com­pli­cat­ed issues can­not be solved through ref­er­en­da. How­ev­er, a more nuanced view may sug­gest that dif­fi­cult con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­da can be con­duct­ed at bet­ter qual­i­ty. The Scot­tish inde­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum of 2014 saw a high­er qual­i­ty and depth of debate on many issues, some­thing that only became pos­si­ble though, because there were two years of time for it. Con­trary to com­mon myths it was not the case that all of Scot­land was engaged from the start – par­tic­i­pa­tion grew very grad­u­al­ly and the lev­el of aware­ness rose steadi­ly. Dif­fer­ent peri­ods saw dif­fer­ent issues debat­ed at greater depth, with con­crete pol­i­cy pro­pos­als and counter-pro­pos­als put for­ward by dif­fer­ent sides in writ­ing and open for debate. None of that is pos­si­ble in a peri­od of around four months.

Not only politi­cians, but also all com­men­ta­tors should learn from this and adjust prac­tices with imme­di­ate effect. Since Fri­day the num­ber of EU, UK and pub­lic atti­tudes “experts” seems to have grown expo­nen­tial­ly. And while every­body is enti­tled to their opin­ion, there is a dan­ger of wors­en­ing the qual­i­ty of debate and thus poten­tial­ly miss­ing the chance to improve any­thing in terms of pub­lic dis­course and polit­i­cal participation.

There are many exam­ples and each would war­rant a lengthy dis­cus­sion itself, but just to illus­trate this with some exam­ples, we want­ed to point out two com­mon state­ments made over the week­end that have been at times impre­cise and at times incorrect:

  • Sev­er­al com­men­ta­tors claimed that the polling firms got this ter­ri­bly wrong. It is true, that most who polled on or just before ref­er­en­dum day saw remain slight­ly in the lead. How­ev­er, we have to remem­ber that polls are nev­er pre­dic­tions and good poll­sters phrase their results as what they are: the cap­ture of momen­tary atti­tudes. As such, the polls clear­ly indi­cat­ed the shift from remain to leave in the month pre­ced­ing the vote, so they seemed to cap­ture the over­all shift. How­ev­er, polls also include, even close to the end, unde­cid­ed and unde­clared vot­ers – if those fell more towards leave for exam­ple, there would be noth­ing wrong with pri­or polls. Sim­i­lar­ly, polls are imper­fect in tak­ing into account dif­fer­ences in turnout – and we know that turnout on the day ben­e­fit­ed the leave side. There are many oth­er mech­a­nisms at play, but it is sim­ply not cor­rect to dis­miss the qual­i­ty of polling in general.
  • Since the ref­er­en­dum impor­tant ques­tions have been raised about the impli­ca­tions for the rest of Europe and whether there will be a domi­no effect mean­ing oth­er coun­tries might fol­low. The ques­tion is rel­e­vant and as we have shown in our own research is that indeed there are sev­er­al coun­tries in which the desire for such a ref­er­en­dum is present and sub­stan­tial amounts of the pop­u­la­tion would con­sid­er leave votes. What is fac­tu­al­ly wrong how­ev­er is that there is one trend or dri­ver of euroscep­ti­cism across all of the EU. Some have claimed that right-wing groups have seen very large increas­es all over, and while it is true for some coun­tries, it is not true every­where (for exam­ple not major­ly in Ire­land, Por­tu­gal or Spain). It is nei­ther cor­rect that elite dis­trust is always focussed on the Euro­pean Union – in some coun­tries nation­al offi­cials are eval­u­at­ed less well and there are sev­er­al coun­tries in which only small minori­ties of below a quar­ter would want to leave the EU, as we have shown in our research.

There are many more such exam­ples and we should be cau­tious when we share our thoughts to dis­tin­guish between what can be fac­tu­al­ly appraised and what gen­uine­ly is a view and an interpretation.

As d|part we are plan­ning to con­duct work fol­low­ing this result in par­tic­u­lar con­tin­u­ing our pri­or research on ques­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­cy and par­tic­i­pa­tion. We will aim to do this through robust empir­i­cal work and hope to be mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions that will help us engage with the chal­lenges we face in devel­op­ing and rethink­ing our democracies.

Dr Jan Eich­horn on behalf of the d|part team.

Read fur­ther

To view results from our project on atti­tudes in six Euro­pean coun­tries on the UK EU ref­er­en­dum, please vis­it: https://www.aqmen.ac.uk/projects/euukreferendum

Click here to watch Chan­nels TV’s inter­view with Dr. Götz Frommholz on Brexit:

If you are inter­est­ed to read our arti­cle series about pop­ulist par­ties in dif­fer­ent Euro­pean coun­tries, please vis­it our blog at: https://dpartblog.wordpress.com

Pic­ture: © Euro­pean Union 2012.

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