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British Euroscepticism

Eighty-six years ago, Winston Churchill described the relationship of the UK to Europe in the following way: ‘We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.’1 Churchill expressed in these three short sentences a central and enduring aspect of British Euroscepticism pre-dating the Second World War. Later, in 1946, he proposed a United States of Europe that would involve French and German leadership, but not that of the UK.2 After a vetoed attempt to join in 1961, the UK eventually became a member state in 1973.The first referendum on UK membership of the EEC (later the EU) was held in 1975 when 67% voted in favour. However, the clamour for further referenda to pull the UK out never really disappeared, and the concessions on the UK’s contribution to the EU won by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher failed to appease Eurosceptic colleagues.

In 1993, the emergence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) gave voters a clear Eurosceptic alternative. UKIP’s first Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were elected in 1999. In the 2014 European elections it gained 27% of the UK’s seats in the EP. UKIP became a serious political threat to both the Labour and the Conservative parties and each of them has consequently developed policies with an obvious appeal to voters contemplating a switch to UKIP.

BREXIT vote3

In 2013, in a tactical gesture to the Conservative Party’s Eurosceptic wing that secured continuing support for his leadership, UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum if he won the 2015 General Election. The European Union Referendum Act 2015 brought into law a non-binding referendum to be held on 23 June 2016.

At the heart of UK resistance to closer union with Europe has been an unwavering commitment to traditional notions of unlimited sovereignty based on the British parliamentary tradition and the independence of its legal system. It was this that some jubilant Leave campaigners celebrated when they described the day of the referendum as ‘Independence Day’.

However, in practice, the Leave campaign made great gains by drawing attention to the dangers of immigration as a consequence of the UK’s open border to the rest of Europe. Leave campaigners also highlighted the democratic deficit of the EU institutions, advocated freedom from EU bureaucracy and regulation, championed UK freedom to negotiate trade deals on its own terms, and pointed to financial savings to be made by leaving.

The Remain campaign was singularly focused on the catastrophic economic losses that would follow a UK withdrawal. Remain campaigners also argued that the benefits of EU membership far outweighed any loss of sovereignty—these benefits included freedom of movement and the ability of the EU to regulate the excessive or unfair profiteering activities of global corporations.

Most commentators believe the pre-referendum campaign was high on sound-bite rhetoric and low on informed content.4 In the event, 52% of UK voters voted to leave the EU with 48% voting to remain. The immediate political storm in the aftermath left unanswered some important questions concerning the mechanism by which the UK will need to leave the EU.


In the short time since the referendum,5 commentary has tended to concentrate around several explanations for the outcome. As with all political intrigues, there may well be more than one credible storyline:

  1. After the 2015 General Election, some have argued that the leadership politics of the Conservative Party came to reflect a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, with presumed Cameron supporters switching to the Leave campaign in the hope of securing their own leadership ambitions. This became all too apparent to a disenchanted referendum electorate.
  2. The referendum result was a democratic rejection of the political elitism characterising the Westminster and Brussels institutions of government. Closely related to this is the argument that the result reflects dissatisfaction with the perceived ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU institutions.
  3. The result represented a populist restatement, or rediscovery, of English identity containing elements of English tribalism. It appears to have emboldened some supporters of this position to engage in race-based hate speech.
  4. Brexit is the hoped-for result of some global media, business, and political interests that had become resentful of the control that EU regulatory powers exercised over their own financial or partisan interests. This was the result that these stakeholders had actively canvassed for and directly, or indirectly, supported.
  5. It heralds the imminent collapse of the vision for post-war European reconciliation and co-operation that may have been inspired by committed Christian leaders with a social vision, but which has now become largely a mechanism to promote the national economic interests of its member states through ever closer forms of federalism.
  6. It was an opportunity to raise a voice of protest against those held to be responsible for the global economic crisis and the consequent austerity economics that are hurting many of those who feel themselves to be marginalised by global forces that are beyond their ability to control.

Each of these accounts (and there are certainly others) combines an analysis of pre-referendum politics, economics, and human movement with an analysis of the post-referendum results. The latter has focused on voter demographics:

  • For example, affluent classes generally voted to remain; older voters generally voted to leave; metropolitan urbanites mostly voted to remain; and rural traditionalists tended to vote to leave.
  • There is a strong statistical correlation between a vote to leave and areas with low incomes, reflecting geographical variations that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s rather than the 2010s.

Those who voted to leave might be characterised as having a vision that sees no future in a networked world in which flows of money and power remain concentrated in elite centres. Their vision consists in physical geography, face-to-face social interaction, and the physical productivity of industry. They see the EU as one of the impersonal forces of globalisation, in which those who voted to leave feel themselves to be the natural and inevitable losers.

Ironically, demographic analysis suggests that those who voted to remain are best placed to circumvent the results of a UK withdrawal from the EU. They are digitally interconnected and productive, global citizens. For them, the notions of national sovereignty exercise less constraint on their personal economic activity. They have access to the significant resource of online global capital and are less likely to feel the full force of any economic downturn than those who voted to leave.

The existential and visceral response that many expressed following the result also suggests that many UK citizens had consciously, or unconsciously, invested heavily in identity projects that were either reinforced or threated by the result. Many young voters who were deeply frustrated by the voting patterns of their parents and grandparents quite simply understood themselves as ‘European’. The result threatens to strip them of their European identity. For those who voted to leave, the result is a victory for national identity, free from the imperial ambitions of a European superpower that threatened to strip anything away that made one distinctively British.

BREXIT implications

The full scale of the implications remains unclear at the time of writing. However, if the UK does withdraw, it will take many years to deal with the political and economic fall-out as it establishes a new relationship with its European neighbours. This includes the question whether the strongly pro-Remain Scotland will withdraw from the UK and forge its own, independent, relationship with the EU.

Of immediate concern for ordinary UK and EU citizens who have relocated to a country other than that of their national citizenship is the question of residency and continuation of employment. EU citizens living in the UK have reported increased rates of race-based hate crimes. British nationals who have retired to European countries face an uncertain future.

It is highly unlikely that the UK will wish to do anything other than negotiate some sort of access to the single market of the EU. Norway is a non-EU member state and pays dearly for its access to the single market.6 The EU is already insisting that the UK’s access to the single market will come at the cost of the free movement of people. Some prominent Leave campaigners raised the prospect of a points-based immigration system. Ironically, after BREXIT, there will be no legal mechanism by which the UK could return refugees travelling from the European mainland to the European country that they had first arrived in upon entering the EU.7

Soul-searching and political manoeuvring seem to characterise European responses to the UK’s imminent departure:

  • Slovakia has announced its desire to see a change in the migration narrative of some in the Leave camp that portrays migrants from Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, as freeloaders, ‘scum’, or job-stealers. Slovakians who were hopeful that the UK would remain lamented the manner in which the migration narrative was manipulated so effectively by the Leave
  • Norway senses an opportunity to re-negotiate its own terms of access to the single market.
  • The Irish government ponders the implications of imposing border controls on an already deeply divided island and must find new legal mechanisms to ensure the continuation of peace in Northern Ireland.8
  • The centre-right government of Poland has begun pressing for a new, revised EU Treaty.
  • Slovakia has asked for a re-balancing of powers between the EU institutions and its member states.
  • Serbia has announced that it will not hold a referendum on its bid for EU membership.

In the days following the referendum, the soul-searching within the EU institutions has prompted them to revisit debate around the EU’s perceived democratic deficit; its mismanagement of the migration crisis; the danger that its Schengen zone faces as a result of its failure to increase external border vigilance; the need to re-energise convergence processes; and a new commitment to promote the benefits of the single market (especially the labour, digital, energy, and telecommunications markets).

Practical implications for mission

My wife and I arrived in Hungary to begin a new mission posting during January 2004, several months before Hungary joined the EU. Serving as missionaries in Hungary after it joined the EU was immeasurably simpler. Four years later I joined the faculty of a mission-training college in the UK where I was assisted by a Lithuanian intern and taught many EU students. In the five years I was on faculty, the immigration screw was gradually tightened on non-EU students and the college was forced to re-focus its programmes. In the event of the UK leaving the EU, the college will again face uncertainty over being able to recruit students from other European countries. It will not be alone among UK Bible and theological colleges and seminaries in facing this issue.

I am currently on the International Board of a large European mission agency with UK and other EU citizens scattered across Europe. We are not limited to working only in EU countries, but our operations are simplified by the fact that we are able to operate freely across all those EU countries in which we do have workers.

A significant part of the UK conservative evangelical community will probably have voted to leave the EU. Their right to do so is not in question, but I wonder whether any of them have made the connection between their decision and the economic consequence of having to support missionaries across Europe for whom the value of their current support package has suddenly declined by 10%. Currency fluctuations are not new to overseas mission agencies but such economic downturns require that those sharing responsibility for it should dig deeply into their pockets to ensure that the workers of at least one European mission agency do not suffer as a result.

Core vision and identity

The characteristic resilience of many missionaries is well expressed in the words of a European missionary who voted to remain: ‘In the chaos and disturbance that this decision will cause over the months and years ahead, both in Britain and across our continent of Europe, my prayer is that Christians remember their true identity in Christ. For he was, is, and always will be the only hope for Europe; that did not change yesterday.’9

The Bishop of West Yorkshire noted: ‘Today we have a bitterly divided country, with fear and resentment bubbling on the surface and feeding on the uncertainty. The churches can provide space for those on both sides of the divide to recover the humanity of the public discourse, to recognise and articulate a common vision for the common good, to incarnate the sort of solidarity we cannot yet imagine.

A similar conversation must begin across and within the Christian churches of Europe. Much as the churches spanned the political divide during the Cold War in Europe, European churches will hopefully manage to rise above mere nationalist agendas and share their witness to a missionary God whose heart of love extends to people of every nation. Playing their part in the move of God’s Spirit across the European continent, mission agencies will continue to engage the Good News of Jesus despite any increase in the levels of complexity involved in funding, placing, and supporting missionaries working within the context of any new political realities of Europe.

The contribution of missionaries and mission agency leaders across Europe in the wake of the UK referendum result has been to encourage European Christians not to lose hope in a God who continues to call men and women to serve him in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. They have urged those who support, those who pray, and those who are sent, to rediscover their true identity in Christ, to urge the condemnation of all forms of xenophobia, to continue to support vulnerable refugees, and to work for societies that are genuinely open and welcoming.

If the current situation has encouraged mission agencies in Europe to ask questions again about their core business and the values of service, radical availability, and sacrifice that shape this, then God will continue to be glorified, even in the midst of political turmoil and uncertainty. Pray for the light of Christ to continue shining in Europe!

1 Winston Churchill, ‘The United States of Europe’, in The Saturday Evening Post and John Bull, 15 February 1930.

2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the UK applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC or ‘Common Market’) in 1961, its application was vetoed by the French President, Charles de Gaulle, who had worked alongside Churchill during the war.

3 BREXIT was the shorthand way of referring to a British EXIT from the European Union.

4 Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was scathing in his comments: ‘A campaign fought on both sides without a clear vision of either national or international identity, reverting again and again to manipulative, irrelevant anecdotal appeals to self-interest, is a poor advertisement for the democratic process as currently operating.’

5 This article was written just two weeks after the Referendum vote.

6 Norway pays the EU €2.8billion per annum for access to the single market and is required to implement EU legislation in the framing of which it has no part.

7 EU legislation currently allows for a refugee who has been detained in the UK, and who can be shown to have travelled to the UK from another EU country, to be returned to the EU country that they first entered when they arrived in the EU.

8 The Peace Accord in Northern Ireland assumes the guarantees of European Human Rights legislation. An EU withdrawal threatens the Accord and prompts the search for new, and potentially destabilising, terms of agreement.

9 Jim Memory, Facebook post, 24 June 2016.

Darrell Jackson is the Senior Lecturer in Missiology at Morling College in New South Wales, Australia. He is a Baptist pastor, formerly from the UK, and served three years in Hungary with the Conference of European Churches. He is the Chair of the Lausanne International Researchers Network and serves the WEA Mission Commission.

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