(Courtesy of Wikimedia)


by Michelle Patiño-Flores (Department of Anthropology, UIUC)

The European Union was created to promote peace and international understanding across Europe. To that end, very early at its inception, it created a single economic market subscribed to by its member states. Two notable hallmarks of the EU have been the creation of trade agreements, which eliminate costly tariffs, and the ability for citizens of member states to move freely among EU countries, through what is known as the Schengen Agreement. The EU develops policy on immigration from non-member countries and it strategizes security efforts for its members. 

The British relationship with the EU has always been contentious. The UK was not a part of the original six states that initially constituted the group in 1957 when it functioned as the Common Market or European Economic Community. Rather, it joined in 1973. Moreover, the UK always retained its own currency and opted out of other notable EU provisions, demonstrating a unique level of autonomy and perhaps hesitancy in the relationship. 

Arguably, the question of leaving the EU has always haunted the UK, so a referendum like the one held on June 23, 2016 was to be expected. The argument to leave the EU became known as Brexit (“British” + “exit”).  The outcome of the referendum was close but sufficient to provoke the UK’s withdrawal from the EU with 52% of voters in favor. One of the primary issues pushed by proponents of the Brexit position was to reclaim the ability to design new trade agreements that centered British interests, which the EU was seen as keen to interfere with.

Diverse positions contributed to BREXIT. Campaign leaders for Brexit fall into different degrees of conservatism: whereas some promote a hard isolationist policy that seeks the most minimal ties with the the EU, other Brexit leaders push for trade arrangements that would engage the EU but benefit the UK more than before, preserving many policies and logistics. Scholars view the former conservative position as a harkening back to the early 20th century ‘“global Britain” with international trade policies (Fitzgerald et al 2020). Virdee and McGeever (2018) however, interpret this as imperial longing: the desire to see Britain occupy the social and political position it formerly held. 

Early analyses of the demographics of Brexit voters indicated that they were primarily and almost exclusively people living on low incomes and holding lower levels of education. However some scholars argue that the success of the Brexit campaign can be largely attributed to politicians’ ability to appeal to a large cross section of people across income brackets, places of residence, and educational experiences (Virdee and McGeever 2018). Dorling (2016) found that middle class people were more likely to vote “leave”, citing anxieties about globalization. The regional highlights of the Brexit vote showed London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland heavily voting to Remain, while the Leave campaign dominated in large cities like Sheffield, Birmingham, as well as in Wales and the south and east of England (BBC). Indeed, writing off all Leave voters as just racist or just classist fails to capture the intersections of privileges and concerns that Brexiters carry: it “[overlooks] the origins of white political identities in racial, colonial, and socioeconomic hierarchies, and the consequences of these political identities” (Curtis 2020).

Politician Nigel Farage became the face of the Brexit movement. He and his political allies perceived and promoted the idea of a working class, understood as white, as being increasingly marginalized as the world around them was being swept up in waves of political correctness and multiculturalism that ignored the interests of the white working class citizens (Pitcher 2019).

While all aspects of the EU have faced critique, it is the issue of refugees and migration that has caused the most public outcry. Brexit voters perceived immigrants and refugees arriving in the UK as threats over which the UK had lost control due, in large part, to the EU policy on refugee resettlement. Virdee and McGeever (2018) note that the construction of the migrant (often and erroneously conflated with refugees) as a security threat happened in tandem with imagining them as economic threats as well. Immigrants were and continue to be interpreted as taking jobs and abusing social goods such as the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Fitzgerald et al. (2020) take special note of the Brexit campaign’s focus on “protecting” the NHS, a discursive move that argued that only certain kinds of Britons (not migrants or descendants of migrants) should be able to use such services, as they are a “racial inheritance” that their ancestors supposedly fought for their benefit.

Many British people of color note that the Brexit decision, while frustrating and difficult to come to terms with, does not altogether dramatically change how they live their lives, as they already have come to expect racism in their home countries and abroad in other European states (Benson and Lewis 2019). Benson and Lewis moreover also posit that Brexit is “unexceptional” due to the “routine racial exclusion at the core of collective imaginings of who is British” (ibid.). Ultimately, as Benson and Lewis argue, Brexit “may be a peculiarly British articulation, but [it] is situated in longer histories of racism and radicalization that are not unique to Britain (ibid.).

A nefarious opposition to immigration, tinged with racism, was certainly one factor in the Brexit vote, as explained in a fascinating forthcoming paper by Chiara Bonacchi. But this was not the only underlying factor. In another important paper in 2018, “The heritage of Brexit” (Journal of Social Archaeology, 18(2): 174-192), Bonacchi et al. argue that “materials and ideas from Iron Age to Early Medieval Britain and Europe were leveraged” in a heritage discourse either for or against Brexit. Bonacchi et al. argue that “these heritages are centered around myths of origins, resistance and collapse.” This is an exceptional study of public perceptions and experience of the past in contemporary society undertaken through digital heritage research fueled by big data.

Brexit’s conservative populist politics is not exclusive to Britain. Rather, it is part of a larger contemporary tendency (Pitcher 2019) in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America – indeed around the world. Notable examples of leaders sharing conservative politics include Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Donald Trump (U.S.), Jeanine Áñez (Bolivia) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) – to name only the most obvious – as well as would-be leaders such as Marine Le Pen (France). 

On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom formally withdrew from the European Union. The future of its relationship to the EU remains unclear and, for many, full of anxiety. Proponents for a “hard” Brexit argue that the only way to honor the citizens’ majority vote is to fully cut the social, political, and economic ties that bind the two powers together. In this vision, markets, borders, and social goods must all be reworked from scratch. For many others, a less strict relationship and extraction from the EU is preferable: keeping the borders open (particularly as it pertains to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), and maintaining tariff-free trade. These Brexiteers see looser borders and preserved economic relationships as valuable assets to the economy

As it stands, the UK has until December 31, 2020 to transition or crash out of the EU. Present trade and political agreements need to be ratified. Fraught with manifold complexities and compromises, many people wonder if the UK will even meet this deadline or if the UK will leave the EU with no special deal and be forced to create brand new relationships. One way or another, Brexit, with its difficult political and economic realities, future implications, and especially because of its fraught and often violent discourse on migrant and refugee exclusion is, indeed, a dark matter for consideration.


Benson, Michaela, and Chantelle Lewis. “Brexit, British People of Colour in the EU-27 and everyday racism in Britain and Europe.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 42.13 (2019): 2211-2228.

Curtis, Jennifer. “Failures of the Sociological Imagination: Trump,“Brexit,” and the Politics of Unfinished Conflict.” The Sociological Quarterly 61.2 (2020): 187-205.

Dorling, Danny. “Brexit: The Decision of a Divided Country.” BMJ, vol. 354, 2016, doi:10.1136/bmj.i3697.

“EU Referendum: The Result in Maps and Charts.” BBC News, BBC, 24 June 2016,

Fitzgerald, Des, et al. “Brexit as heredity redux: Imperialism, biomedicine and the NHS in Britain.” The Sociological Review (2020): 0038026120914177.

Graziano, Alejandro G., Kyle Handley, and Nuno Limão. “Brexit Uncertainty: Trade Externalities beyond Europe.” AEA Papers and Proceedings. Vol. 110. 2020.

Patel, Tina G., and Laura Connelly. “‘Post-race’racisms in the narratives of ‘Brexit’voters.” The Sociological Review 67.5 (2019): 968-984.

Pitcher, Ben. “Racism and Brexit: notes towards an antiracist populism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 42.14 (2019): 2490-2509.

Satnam Virdee & Brendan McGeever (2018) Racism, Crisis, Brexit, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:10, 1802-1819, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2017.1361544