In the ongoing chaos and confusion of Britain’s departure from the EU, news that many UK constituencies are shifting from being leavers to remainers offers the opportunity to look at the Brexit debate from an unusual viewpoint: do citizens consider the EU as something more than just an economic arrangement?
The current Brexit debate focuses mainly on economic considerations, as if the only thing worth reflecting on at the end of a 45-year marriage – just like the UK and the European union – is money. What about love? As preached by the advocates of closer European ties in the aftermath of World War II, a new cross-national political community could not be forged around material interests alone.
Brexit is an opportunity to discuss how far European citizens still recognise themselves to be part of the same political community rather than merely shareholders in a common economic market. In other words, has the EU generated enough of a sense of solidarity among its citizens, one that makes them willing to stay together despite the various challenges such as the Brexit vote?
Results from an EU-funded study called Transnational Solidarity at Times of Crisis (TransSOL), in which Glasgow Caledonian University was a partner, suggest the question has a positive answer.
Europe is working
In this study, 16,916 European citizens living in eight countries – Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and the UK, plus Switzerland, a non-EU country – were surveyed and asked, among other things, whether they would like their country to open up its borders to foreigners. The majority of respondents (six out of ten) across these countries replied that they were in favour of allowing foreigners to enter their country if they were EU nationals.
But only four out of ten were in favour if foreigners were non-EU nationals (still an appreciable share, but the difference between the two categories of “foreign nationals” is 20% in favour of EU nationals). The majority of those who were in favour of foreign nationals entering their country said it was on the condition that there were jobs available for them to take up. And here too being an EU national made a difference compared to being a non-EU citizen, with the former largely preferred to the latter.
In 2017 (the year after the Brexit vote), the same study asked EU citizens to say how they would vote in a referendum on their country’s membership of the EU. The majority of respondents living in five out of the eight countries surveyed – Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Poland – confirmed their preference to remain in the EU.
Respondents living in the UK were split between remainers and leavers with a tiny majority for leave, much as the original referendum had shown. The only EU country with a clear, large majority of citizens who said they would vote for their country to leave the EU was Greece (while respondents in Switzerland confirmed their will to stay out of it).
Solidarity despite setbacks
These results tell us that the sense of solidarity and attachment generated by the EU across its history is still alive despite a major economic crisis and related austerity measures, despite a shocking Brexit vote, and despite the heavily polarised debates following the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing war and violence in Syria and the Middle East.
But such an appreciation of European solidarity is unevenly distributed among European peoples. It is stronger in those countries whose citizens have suffered least from economic strains and austerity policies, such as Germany, Poland and Denmark, but it still exists in countries that have suffered more from the global economic and financial crisis like Italy.
Greece stands apart in this study for the majority of its citizens take a very critical position and would prefer their country to leave the EU. This result deserves particular attention because it unveils both the potential and the fragility of European solidarity. European peoples and countries have learned to show solidarity and resilience during difficult times. However, when adversity becomes too extreme, making solidarity conditional upon specific demands might be dangerous.
In the case of the Greek bailout, solidarity from the EU in the form of loans allowing the country to avoid bankruptcy were provided in exchange for the country’s political authority being superseded by outside bodies, namely the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, which have imposed huge public cuts with dramatic consequences for the people. Greeks have perceived such crisis management as a betrayal of that promised European solidarity and are now largely against European membership.
This tells us that Europe has nurtured among its peoples an appreciation for both the intangible (solidarity) and tangible (economic and market-driven) benefits it has generated. But making solidarity depend too heavily on material aspects risks putting European social cohesion and well-being in peril. And this is something that should be seriously considered in the UK as the country approaches the Brexit deadline.