The Brexit Vote, One Year Later

The Historical Roots of the Decision to Leave the EU

Nigel Farage, then the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, in London, June 2016. TOBY MELVILLE / reuters

On June 23, 2016, citizens in the United Kingdom voted 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union, sending shockwaves around the world and raising concerns about a new type of populism on both sides of the Atlantic. The common explanation of Brexit presents it as a revolt by the losers of globalization. As the international movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people has intensified, this argument runs, the latter shaped the referendum results most profoundly. The intra-European flow of migrants from east to west, combined with the potential for an influx of refugees in 2015, convinced many British citizens that they stood on the losing end of a globalized, borderless Europe.

Although this story captures important dynamics, it misses crucial historical developments that influenced British leaders’ decision to hold the referendum, as well as its outcome. Four trends converged to lead the United Kingdom to split with the EU: a divergence between the United Kingdom and the continent about the meaning of the European project and the nature of sovereignty; a gradual estrangement of British political parties from the public; the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis; and Brussels’ lackluster management of the EU’s problems. These developments help explain why the message of Leave resonated and that of Remain proved counterproductive. They reveal, moreover, just how fragile and elite-driven the European project remains.

Arranging flags ahead of Brexit talks betwen the United Kingdom and the EU, Brussels, June 2017. Francois Lenoir / REUTERS


The first trend—the growing distance between the United Kingdom and other European states over integration and sovereignty—dates to the start of European integration in the 1950s. On the continent, the European project’s founding fathers saw integration as a way to overcome the destructive legacies of World War II by reimagining national sovereignty. The Nazis’ brutal conquest of France, the Low Countries, and Italy, together with the U.S. and Soviet occupations that followed, deconstructed the states of Western Europe. Across the continent, the Third Reich’s racial policies had unleashed a kind of civil war, as the Nazis forced local populations to

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