Why did people vote for Brexit? Was it a hatred of bureaucratic “red tape” and a desire to preserve sovereignty? Or was the vote to Leave driven by a perceived mishandling of the refugee and migrant crisis in 2015, and the TV images of hundreds of people crossing the borders into Hungary, or arriving on the shores of Greek and Italian islands by boat?

The number of people arriving to seek asylum in the EU has dropped sharply, and is now back at pre-2015 levels. For some commentators, the crisis appears over. Yet the political impact of those chaotic days are still ongoing, and Brexit seems to be the most acute example of that. Did the refugee crisis increase Euroscepticism across the EU? Did it lead to the Brexit vote? And, if it happens again, could other countries also decide to leave?

In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.

Today, we are looking at Middlesbrough, in the north of England. Compared to other cities in the UK, Middlesbrough has taken a high proportion of asylum seekers and refugees. In 2015, it was the only city in the country to host more than one asylum seeker for every 200 of the population. It also strongly voted “Leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with over 65% of votes supporting the UK’s exit from the European Union. Could these two be related? Did the negative coverage of the refugee crisis (which was at its absolute height in 2015) increase Euroscepticism and push people toward voting for Brexit?

Curious to know more about the impact of the refugee crisis on levels of Euroscepticism? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).

What do our readers think? We had a comment from jthk, who thinks that the way the EU handled the refugee crisis led to an increase in eurosceptism. In fact, he thinks the refugee crisis lead directly to Brexit. Is he right?

To get a reaction, we put his comment to Suzanne Fletcher, a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Stockton-On-Tees, just outside Middlesbrough. She is currently Chair of the Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary and made national headlines by raising the issue of housing for asylum seekers in Middlesbrough being identified with red doors, potentially leaving the residents vulnerable to abuse. What would she say to jthk’s comment?

I don’t think he’s right. I’m not happy how Europe had handled the refugee crisis; I think there should have been much more genuine sharing out of what was happening, much more working together and collaboration. But I think that’s quite separate to how people voted on Brexit, because it wasn’t an informed decision, really. We have a lot of asylum seekers and refugees living here, and anybody who knows them, works with them, is near them – no problems at all. It’s a perceived threat, and it’s really more how the media has played it, and blown issues up, distorted issues, or just plain misreported issues that’s caused the problem. But it’s not Europe’s fault.

For another perspective, we also put jthk’s comment to Lorenza Antonucci, Assistant Professor in Social Policy / Sociology at the University of Birmingham (and previously a Research Lecturer at Teesside University in Middlesbrough). Her research includes a focus on analysing and understanding the reasons for the Brexit vote. So, what has she discovered? Did the refugee crisis lead to a increase in Euroscepticism ahead of the vote?

No, I have no reason to believe that the way the EU handled the refugee crisis led to Brexit. One could argue that the handling of refugee migration might have increased Euroscepticism in Southern European countries or in countries that played a key role in welcoming refugees, such as Germany (and yet Merkel’s approach to refugees gathers majoritarian support). In any case this was not the case of the UK, not only because the UK has accepted a risible number of refugees to be considered a country affected by the ‘refugee crisis’, but also because Cameron called the referendum after a ‘failed’ attempt to renegotiate EU migrant mobility and access to the British welfare state. The handling of refugees and migration from outside the EU is a complex issue that pertains mostly to national laws (so it was and remains a British matter, before and after Brexit) and partially to how the EU manages border controls. We can debate about this second issue, but again, the UK is geographically and legally (read: Schengen) quite protected by EU border issues. This was not therefore the topic at the centre of the negotiations that preceded the call for the referendum.

As for pretty much anything that concerns contemporary politics, we need to distinguish between what people believe and the reality of policies. So did the ‘fear of the refugee crisis’ play a role during the Brexit vote? The fear of refugees was mobilised by the Leave campaign – see the infamous refugee poster unveiled by Farage, condemned as fake news and removed. We need more research to prove that these feelings were internalised by voters and played a role in how they voted. In our own Brexit research we explored several feelings and found that anxiety was not significant to explain the Brexit vote and that ‘feelings to be left out’ was significant only when associated with perceived economic loss. This made us thinking that there was something more material about the Brexit vote than the narrative of the anxious/fearful voter scared by refugees would suggest.

Next up, we had a comment from Adrian who said the real cause of Euroscepticism and populism is austerity, and it’s this that explains the rise of populist, anti-EU parties. How would Suzanne Fletcher respond?

I think that was a big part of it. I think the biggest problem has been the media and how things have been portrayed, whether it’s print media, or visual, or social media. But in areas where people are worse off there has been a higher Brexit vote, and I think people are feeling pretty desperate, they don’t see things changing, things are pretty bad, and I know quite a few people who voted for Brexit thinking that would mean David Cameron would call and election and Jeremy Corbyn would get elected, and then everything would be alright. But, of course, it hasn’t turned out like that, and everything isn’t necessarily going to be alright anyway. I personally don’t think that is the answer at all. And those people have said to me they would change their mind. But it is people feeling beaten down, no hope, not enough money, not enough opportunities – and I think opportunities is a huge thing. They don’t see a future. And it was a chance, they thought, of making a change. And, of course, it hasn’t. It’s going to make things worse for the very people that can’t afford to be any worse off.

Finally, what would Lorenza Antonucci say to this comment

I am not convinced that it was a conscious vote against austerity (otherwise it would have been followed by a conscious political vote for anti-austerity parties in the following GE elections), but I agree that austerity has indirectly played a role in the Brexit vote. It definitely had a factual role compared to migration. But contemporary politics is also made of imagination – and therefore we need to understand why austerity took the shape of the fear of the other (EU and non-EU migrant) and opposition to the EU, instead of taking the shape of anger against the elite in the specific British context.

Brexit says way more about the UK than about Europe. Austerity also happened in other European countries, in particular in Southern European countries, but those countries have not (yet) reacted with such level of Euroscepticism. To understand why the EU became the target of such popular frustration, we need to understand how the EU has been framed in British media and political debates. As I wrote shortly after the referendum, the British elites have kept their knowledge of EU affairs as part of their ‘cultural capital’. EU affairs have been out of the national curriculum and very few European perspectives have been offered in popular and media debates. The lack of popular interest in EU affairs made it easier to then use the EU and Europe as a blame avoidance instrument by the government and to neglect that the EU agenda is, after all, the expression of the Member States’ interests, in particular of the most powerful states, as the UK.

I have reasons to believe that self-inflicted British austerity played a role in influencing the vote. In our research we found that individuals from ‘the squeezed middle’, an intermediate class whose financial position has been declining, represent an important section of the Brexit vote. These people are typically unhappy about the evolution of their lives in the latest 5 years – and there are plenty of evidence to show that the Conservatives’ policies adopted since 2010 have depressed consumption and affected the material lives of intermediate segments of the population. In a way Brexit has worked to prevent a mass opposition that could have been directed to British national politics (see the GE elections 2017).

So yes, to conclude, austerity can be considered the economic and material reason behind the vote, but we are mostly talking about a self-inflicted British austerity agenda (uploaded also to the EU and then downloaded by Southern European countries). If this agenda resulted in Brexit in the UK, it is because of the politics of resentment (the fear of the ‘other’, EU migrants, refugees etc) and of specific role that the EU has come to play in British politics since the beginning of the European project.

Has the refugee crisis increased Euroscepticism? Was Brexit more the fault of relentless negative coverage by the media? Or was austerity and a backlash against public budget cuts to blame? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: (c) / BigStock – wael_alreweie
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


30 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    catherine benning

    Did the refugee crisis increase euroscepticism?

    There was no ‘refugee’ crisis as such. The open door policy forced onto us was deliberately formed in order to entice poverty stricken of the world to make their way to our shores in order to bring about the change in cultural agenda we see today. It was into practice from the onset of European political unity. It was and is a bizarre rejection of the natural evolution of the European people and their lifestyle choices and aspirations. It was intended to do exactly what it has done. Reduce the expectation of a civilised lifestyle by importing a mass of dysfunctional, low paid, subservient people in order to reduce the cost of employment, as well as change the hard fought for life improvements seen by our population through consequential change in employment laws. (No job security, no holiday pay, reduced benefits, more working hours, worsening conditions and so on) This then enabled the disappearance of unions and political movements, previously hell bent on fighting to raise the standard of living for all employed Europeans. It thereby created a massive reduction in standard of living, used throughout the undeveloped world for centuries to keep them impoverished and now skewed toward all working European peoples the way we see today. Homelessness, health service limitations, education charges, infrastructure neglect. The lowering of expectation of excellence in art, lifestyle, rule of law, medicine, science, music. In fact if you research you will notice a standstill in the cultural advancement of most European arts, music and sciences. Bad writing, poor music, confused fashion, inadequate vocabulary. The overriding reason for this is, poor or non existent leadership, abandonment of perceived principles, neglect of duty and so on. In fact, a complete change of culture and conscience. A jumble of differing objectives leading to the inability to make intelligent and unified decisions. The Tower of Babel comes to mind. Absolute chaos.

    This betrayal of our system and our people is the reason for scepticism. Very few have faith in the ability of those who have set themselves up as leaders. They are all fearful enablers and have no desire or vision to lead a nation anywhere or toward anything of worth. They simply hang on by mastication and regurgitation. With this all prevailing circumstance we cannot move forward only backward. As, what is absorbed as trendy and fashionable is, in fact, deterioration of European and Western civilisation.

    It is policy that has led to the crisis we have as Europeans. Idiotic immaturity with no sense of responsibility.

  2. avatar

    the states that saw a rise in right wing nationalism and euroscepticism would have been f***ed without the rest of the EU during the crisis…

    • avatar

      The refugee crisis was caused by the EU (mostly Merkel), how you even came to the conclusion that the states that saw a rise in right wing nationalism would have accepted refugees had they not been in EU is beyond me.

  3. avatar

    No the UK had always thought that it was special

    • avatar

      Yeah but so has France, Spain, Italy, Germany and practically any country that has had even a slight amount of power.

  4. avatar

    The destruction of EU values saw that increase.
    It was not a “crisis” until Merkel and EU made it so.

    • avatar

      Exactly, this is not a natural crysis, it’s a crysis caused by Merkel and her “progressive” ideas.

      We need Europe, but not commie Europe. Some refugees just want to live decent and peaceful lives and we should help them with that, others (and surprisingly even some Europeans) support the backwards values that caused wars and famine in their native countries in the first place and refuse to adapt to western values. I agree that we should help refugees, but not at the cost of the European population.

    • avatar

      The crisis was disregarded by EU Nations until it was concerning Italy and Greece only. The entire Europe is responsible for it

  5. avatar

    Far right has been milking an issue solved back in 2015 playing with people fears. It’s not the crisis that fueled euroscepticism, it’s the far right lies fueling it!

    • avatar

      Pedro yeah blame everything on the “farright” everyone i disagree with is a fascist.. my god the blindess to the real problem caused bu mass immigration of people who refuse to accept the value of the country they are GUEST, not citizen, guest.
      What fuel euroscepticsm is a burocratic authoritarian orwellian nightmare like the EU who does not answer to nobody and continuosly run over people democratic choices in order to pursue theirs socialagenda. Plus they are destroying every national value.
      I am Italian, not european.
      There are no europeans.
      And if the eu continues on this trend there will never be. We should break apart and rebuild a union of free people in free country.

    • avatar

      Andrea since we’re talking about people that have never even reached 5% of Europe’s population, had 1 year of higher migration due to a war in a neighbouring country, i fail to see your argument…

      Who am i to blame for far right histerical crying then?

    • avatar

      Pedro, you know who is the “far right” ? everyone that isn’t far left. But go ahead and listen to your media overlords on how Poland and Hungary destabilize EU. They are the only ones still defending the interests of the native population, the interests of not being bombed by terrorists because you want to appear “progressive” like the communists in the 20th century, another progressive movement that failed.

      We need Europe, but not commie Europe. Some refugees just want to live decent and peaceful lives and we should help them with that, others (and surprisingly even some Europeans) support the backwards values that caused wars and famine in their native countries in the first place and refuse to adapt to western values.

      I agree that we should help refugees, but not at the cost of the European population. Funny how some countries who help refugees won’t help their own hobos. Of course the refugee crysis increased euroscepticism, that’s common sense.

  6. avatar

    Iw would have come anyway. It was allreddy on the reice before that. Tha main reson is moust likly rather the 2008 market krasch. The next one will be mutch worse tho.

  7. avatar

    It definitely has put people off the EU and let’s be honest, the “refugee crisis” was mishandled… Such a large number of unknown persons should never be allowed to enter any country anywhere. It is a security issue.

  8. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    Typical DE/EU approach! Chewing & chewing- never to let go!

    Does it really matter or does it make any difference WHY the Brits decided by a slight 52% majority referendum to say “nicely”- far well, good by to the EU?


    The sovereign UK (or any other sovereign member) does not owe anybody any explanation- except to implement the democratic will of its electorate- whatever its outcome! The outcome was a 2% difference, complex to implement, but endlessly opposed, interfered & manipulated.

    Fact, the EU- “as is”- is not loved by everybody! Understood? Why not allow a honest & democratic test?

    Please, stop wasting tax payers money on such endless market research “info-graphs”- rather allow & “encourage” every 27 Members to hold similar referendums!

    Worried? Transgressions against the many-fold Treaties?

    Since when can one accept frequent “market researches” as a substitute for democratic referendums? To be or not to be- “as is”- that is the “final” but cardinal question!

    Such democratic process would yield a fair and acceptable (please make it “binding”) result- which could save all this time wasting speculation & endless political brinkmanship’s!

    Is that a deal? (Thanks in advance, I know it wont!)

  9. avatar

    More like a horrible collection of politics from multiple parties in this so called “democracy”. The EU is nasty. When will this “union” have real right wing?
    Why only choose between left left and left?

  10. avatar
    Citizen Journalism

    Not really the refugee crisis itself but the way politicians and the media portrayed the whole crisis in the media. “Refugees are all rapists” until one climbs up four floors to save a child and he is suddenly a hero, given “European” nationality. #hipocrisy

  11. avatar

    Yes. Because they got obvious justification now.

  12. avatar

    Surely the refugees crisis caused Brexit and also populist government in Italy.Any doubt?

  13. avatar

    No because one assumes there was ever enthusiasm for the EU. The trouble started with Maastrich, got worse when Lisbon was signed. People forget why the referendum was called. UKIP costing both labour and the Torie votes and winning the 2010 European elections, growing membership and funding and eating into votes in domestic elections. Cameron was forced to promise a referendum in the last election. Long before the migrant crisis. The migrant crisis may have been seen as a negative by leave voters. But they had long been Eurosceptic. Essentially the only reason this issue is raised in this way is to convince people that Brexit is for bigots.

  14. avatar

    Years of deliberate misrepresentation of the EU by consecutive governments and newspapers are the primary cause.

  15. avatar

    Anglusok nem hajigálni szélbe pénzt?
    Anglos don’t throw money in the wind?

  16. avatar

    The image betrays the lamentably typical UK approach, unthinkingly including the Republic of Ireland in its own offfshore isolationism, as though it were somehow only semi-independent. The tragedy is that this is typical of the thinking in Westminster even now, this sense of superiority and entitlement. Project that onto a public that has been spoon-fed lies by the likes of such unscrupulous careerists as Boris Johnson for some twenty years and Brexit is the result. Immigration was always just another issue for people like him to blow up out of all proportion and to exploit to persuade the people to be afraid. And let’s not forget that they have every right to be afraid of change in times when change is so rapid., but scaremongering is not the best way to allay their fears.

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      @ Pete

      Southern Ireland is an excuse used by ‘remainers’ to keep the UK and its people tied to foreign decisions cast on our laws and life in general. Southern Ireland obviously feels too insecure to run its own country and adapt to not being ruled by unelected dictatorship. Good for Ireland. That is up to them. However, clearly they are terrified of the UK exiting and taking its money with it. What they love is the idea of forcing the British to jump to their tune in a club hell bent on being in control of its freedoms. In other words, to subjugate those who they feel have ruled their lives historically. They fear being their own man and they know full well European politicians are not up to running any country fit to live in as civilised, aspirational humans with a democratic freedom of purpose. Yet see themselves as saviours of its despotism. Are they serious?

      Our politicians at Westminster are of the same calibre of the EU controllers and their fear is, once free of EU jurisdiction, the UK citizen will be able to elect men of vision and power who will be in a position to follow through with ‘our’ wishes. The way Switzerland is able to do under their direct democracy. This thought terrifies them. A free Britain that flourishes as it should, will change the people of the world from control of the unseen and hidden agenda called the ‘New World Order.’ That same New World Order none of us has had the privilege to peruse or vote for or against.

      Southern Ireland is governed by those who are part of that group and they too don’t want to find themselves out of their safe club of the selected. So, they use their border to play games with the British electorate. Borders all over Europe have no difficulty, but suddenly Ireland is different. It is a ruse. And one that is convenient for those in that identical club, set up in the UK parliament. Those who feast off of British tax paid to them via EU payouts. Which just about covers most of those in that place.

      What you don’t like is, the British people were not as indoctrinated as you had believed over the forty years the EEC-EU was rammed down our throats. Johnson, and many others who are fighting for freedom from this mafia, have only recently realised what being in this club has meant in reality and the shock is now taking hold. You have the audacity to use the word unscrupulous careerists whilst plugging the idea of being run by European tyrants. You must be joking. Either that, or, you are suffering from a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome. Too long held as captive in a cellar.

      Immigration is being used as a set up to swallow European humanity and culture and will do so until that no longer exists. You are fanning that flame to the best of your ability. Now I wonder why that is? There has to be a motive. What could it be. Perhaps you feel you can’t make it as a citizen of freedom of thought?

      And as a footnote, why does the sense of superiority and entitlement frighten you? Do you have no sense of self or self esteem? Fear you can’t manage to stand on your own two feet? A need to rely on controllers because of a deep insecurity? That is how protectionist rackets work. And why I write this is, reading through your post, the word fear runs through it from start to finish.

      My advice to you is, get a grip and man up. The EU isn’t going to save you. It has no desire to do so. Look at the peoples of Greece, Italy, etc., and they belong to a bigger landmass than Ireland.

  17. avatar
    Gordon Wilson

    I’m a Scotsman who was one of the 38% who voted for Brexit. I also voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014.

    Nicola Sturgeon and her mob have done nothing but moan about Westminster power grabs and how bad Brexit will be for Scotland. Well one group of people our brave and downtrodden fishermen will no doubt disagree with the poison dwarf. No other industry has suffered so much at the hands of the EU and now after years of turmoil there may just be light at the end of the tunnel.
    Sturgeon would quite happily let the EU rule the waves and sees nothing morally wrong in that a landlocked country like Austria should have the same rights as the UK.

    All we hear about up here is 62% voted to remain and Scotland is being dragged out the EU against her will. As far as I remember in June 2016 the ballot paper stated whether the United Kingdom should leave or remain not Scotland not England not Wales not Northern Ireland. London voted 75% remain but I don’t see anyone advocating London leaves the UK.

    Whether you voted to remain or leave the most important thing is to respect democracy and do what’s best for the country. David Cameron could not have made it any clearer when he said what would happen if we voted leave in that we would leave the single market and the customs union.

    Nicola Sturgeon has been on the losing side in two major referendums she does not respect the results and does not respect democracy. The gauling thing is if she had won in 2014 Scotland wouldn’t have been in the EU anyway.

    Let’s just get on with the job!

  18. avatar

    No, we were always very Eurosceptic which increased as Europe integrated . The Lisbon treaty was a step too far for most of us and if we had been given the vote on that we would have rejected it . Our governments during our membership have all failed to stop further political integration which the UK people with our long history of democracy reject .

  19. avatar
    Olivier Dutreil

    It was obvious that EU had no consideration for European peoples opinion and therefore altered the confidence of people towards the Union.
    On this important matter there was no vote and no referendum

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