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Mile End Institute

The Failure of Remain: the remarkable mobilisation and limited efficacy of the anti-Brexit movement

Following the referendum in June 2016, there was a mass mobilisation of anti-Brexit activism across all parts of the UK. Based on their recently published book, The Failure of Remain, Stijn van Kessel and Adam Fagan examine this movement and the 'politicisation of Europe' by a grassroots social movement. 

Photo of a crowd of people at Remain protest outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, taken by Peter Summers
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Witnessing British citizens draped in the EU flag, standing on street stalls and participating in mass demonstrations to proclaim their support for the EU was certainly unusual and probably unprecedented. The majority of the activists we interviewed were at pains to express their regret about not having campaigned actively in defence of membership.

There was a point, against a backdrop of several large London anti-Brexit demonstrations, when it looked as though the movement was gaining real momentum and might even succeed in impacting the political process.

Why, then, did such a mass mobilisation fail not just to stop Brexit or achieve a second vote, but even to impact the ultimate deal negotiated and the terms of which the UK left the EU in January 2020?

To a large extent the answer lies in the wider political context and the lack of opportunities it provided. The Conservative government committed itself to executing Brexit; the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn was divided and less than emphatic in its support for Remain; the referendum had delivered a decisive result which many Remain supporters were reluctant to challenge; and the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU political party, had lost most of its MPs in the 2015 general election.

We must also acknowledge that an unrelentingly Eurosceptic discourse in British printed media over the previous three decades created a particularly inhospitable context for any defence of the EU, before or after the June 2016 vote. More so than in many other EU member states, European integration has been framed as a process restricting the UK’s sovereignty, and support for ‘Europe’ has been generally been couched in pragmatic, transactional, and in­strumental terms.  

There has been little critical analysis of the pro-EU movement itself. We focus on how activists mobilised, the strategies they deployed, the language they used, and the way they articulated their defence of EU membership and opposition to Brexit. Whilst we do not begin from the premise that the movement could have stopped Brexit, we do contend that the ‘framing’ of campaigns – how issues and problems are articulated, the balance between diagnosing the problem and depicting an alternative – really matters.

Based on extensive interviews held with activists from all corners of the UK, and an analysis of their campaign materials, we reach three conclusions.

First, despite the numbers involved and the considerable visibility of the movement, its political impact was compromised by internal division, both ideological and structural. Whilst local groups shared know-how and supported each other’s actions, there was a lack of over-arching leadership and a growing gulf between the national (London) level campaign and the local movement. This was exacerbated by the growing dominance of the People’s Vote (PV) campaign (established in April 2018) and the obfuscation around whether the primary aim and message was to stop Brexit or to achieve a second referendum. A ’people’s vote’ was PV’s central goal, yet many local groups favoured a more explicit defence of the EU and a focus on the benefits of European integration instead.

Second, and relatedly, activists lacked a cogent and positive vision of and narrative for the future of the UK in Europe. The question as to whether the EU as it existed needed to be reformed, or indeed why membership was important were both contentious issues that pitched younger activists against older campaigners and divided left and right within the movement. To give a few examples: messaging about security and the post-War peace dividend seemed to have limited resonance beyond a certain older demographic, and the ‘critical Europeanist’ vision of the left-wing organisation Another Europe is Possible was not quite to the taste of those who primarily sought to defend the ‘liberal’ status quo ante of continued EU membership.

There was also the challenge of having to speak to different audiences across the UK. Waving EU flags was generally no problem in more cosmopolitan urban areas where people tended to support EU membership. Yet in heavily Leave-leaning regions openly defending the EU was bound to be met with more hostility. Messages here were much less ‘pro-EU’, primarily focused on questioning the claims of Brexit-supporting press and elites, and conveying the argument that leaving the EU would fail to make life in the UK any better.  

Finally, despite the involvement of professional campaigners (at the central level) and the proliferation of different protest repertoires, many local activists by their own admission lacked campaigning experience. In the era of social media and climate activism, strategies such as street stalls and protest marches felt too conventional to motivate additional supporters, reach a younger and more diverse demographic, and gain traction with political elites.

What does all this mean for the future of any pro-EU activism in the United Kingdom and, indeed, elsewhere in Europe? If pro-European citizens really want to counter Euroscepticism effectively as well as to set the agenda on European integration, they need to articulate a cogent vision of a future Europe that at least addresses Eurosceptic concerns.

The key challenge for those wishing to campaign for a closer relationship with Brussels is how to appeal beyond those who supported Remain in 2016. How to reach out and convince the politically disengaged and disillusioned, and a younger demographic for whom the UK’s departure arguably has the most profound consequences? We contend in our conclusion that embedding ‘Europe’ in a broader programme for dealing with contemporary (global) challenges, specifying the roles and responsibilities the EU should and should not have, may well be the answer.

Public opinion has seemingly shifted against Brexit more quickly than expected, creating a better political opportunity structure for a pro-European movement in the UK. Whilst many activists have returned to their ordinary lives, the anti-Brexit movement has left a legacy in the shape of a network of organisations (including a significantly strengthened European Movement) that strive for European and international cooperation. If and when the is­sue of EU membership appears back on the UK’s political agenda, this network may enable pro-Euro­pean activists to widen their support base and make a renewed case for ‘Europe’ with a clear set of arguments.

Stijn van Kessel is Associate Professor in European Politics at Queen Mary University of London, and Adam Fagan is Professor of European Politics at King's College London.

This article was originally published by UK in a Changing Europe and is reproduced with their kind permission. 



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