In another bizarre twist in the Brexit saga, the British Parliament has signaled its acceptance of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal with the EU, but has also decided there must be a general election on Dec. 12 before the deal can finally be ratified. EU leaders could be forgiven an ironic smile.
Even though opinion polls give Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservatives a commanding lead as the campaign opens, they also indicate that a clear majority of British voters — larger than the one that backed “Leave” in the 2016 referendum — actually favors remaining in the EU.
However, EU leaders might want to contain their smiles. The EU’s biggest enemy is not euroskeptic hostility, but rather indifference. Although polls taken even before the Brexit referendum tended to show a majority for Remain, they also found that most Britons did not care about the EU one way or another. The question of EU membership simply was not a priority issue for most people. It was assumed that voters would select the less risky option and support Remain. In fact, their indifference put the referendum up for grabs.
As a result, random contingencies or the effectiveness of either side’s rhetoric had the potential to push the result over the line in either direction. In the event, immigration had become an especially potent issue in 2016, owing to media images of mass migration and refugee flows across the Mediterranean and the Balkans. For the “Leave” campaign, the EU’s failure to manage the crisis was a boon.
Yet when future historians look back at this episode, they will probably conclude that there was an ocean of apathy between two sets of hardcore true believers on each side of the European question. Britain had always been a semi-reluctant EU member state, so it did not take much to tip the balance slightly in favor of leaving.
The key moment came when then-British prime minister David Cameron, driven by political dynamics within the Conservative Party, made the fateful decision to hold a referendum on the issue, amid the economic and political stress of the long recession that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.
Ever since the establishment of the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU) in 1957, Britons have had a rather detached, sometimes even condescending, view of European integration. This remained the case even after the UK’s accession to the bloc in 1973, and even after a significant majority of British voters affirmed EU membership in a referendum in 1975. For the British, being a part of “Europe” was a transactional relationship, not a marriage of love.
By contrast, the countries that suffered the most from two world wars and German occupation during World War II (France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy) have always had deeper, more sentimental reasons for supporting the EU. The specter of war features prominently in these countries’ collective memory, even among younger generations that were born long after peace had been secured.
However, even continental Europeans’ commitment to the European project should not be taken for granted. This month, the think tank Friends of Europe published an opinion poll based on interviews with more than 12,000 respondents across the 28 EU countries and found that 60 percent of respondents “aren’t sure they would miss the EU if it were gone.”