Why is Britain leaving the European Union? What, if any, are the lessons for public diplomacy?

By Alan Hunt

Alan Hunt, Visiting professor of the College of Europe, reflects in this column on Brexit and its relation with public diplomacy efforts: ‘Leave campaigners did understand their audience and had a clear message, two essential ingredients for successful public diplomacy’. But the rest was indeed a domestic battle, he claims. How to lead a public diplomacy campaign will be tackled in the course ‘EU Diplomacy and Diplomatic Skills’, in October at the College of Europe in Bruges.

The role of history

Those shocked at the British referendum result asked: How could this happen? A prior question might be: Why was Britain ever in the EU?

Historically, the British were an island people, with a vocation for global trade and empire. Britain did not ignore Europe, intervening whenever a Continental power became over-mighty, but she avoided entanglement. Two centuries of internal stability following the English Civil War led to the industrial revolution, democratisation and the pragmatic philosophies of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Much of Europe, by contrast, experienced revolution and aggressive nationalism, while imbibing the theoretical constructs of Hegel and Marx.

The above is, naturally, a simplification. The transition from absolutism to democracy was common to many European countries in the 19th and 20th centuries; Britain’s proud liberal tradition would not bear scrutiny in her overseas colonies, even if she belatedly led the campaign against slavery. Britain did, however, avoid the 20th Century excesses of Communism and Fascism. She regards herself as different from her Continental neighbours.

In 1946, Winston Churchill famously advocated a United States of Europe. Churchill did not, however, include in this vision a Britain then rooted in the British Empire and allied to the United States. In 1951 Britain declined to join the European Coal and Steel Community, and in 1955 withdrew from negotiations to form the European Economic Community (EEC), alarmed at the economic integration contemplated. It was not until 1961, when – against expectations - the EEC had proved successful, with Britain’s own economy in the doldrums, that Britain sought membership, only to encounter De Gaulle’s vetoes in 1963 and 1967.

Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973. Opponents argued that this was an aberration from her historical destiny, but her continued membership enjoyed strong approval in a 1975 referendum, with 67.2% voting countrywide in favour and 32.8% against.

Why Brexit?

The 2016 vote was very different: 51.9% Leave, 48.1% Remain, with majorities for the latter only in London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. Some had long been convinced the UK would prosper outside the EU. But why did so many others vote Leave?

First, the EU itself had changed. In 1975 the EEC, with nine members of similar economic strength, had limited Community competences. Freedom of movement was still an aspiration. Political cooperation barely existed. In 2016, by contrast, the EU had 28 members, many with weak economies. Successive treaties (culminating in Lisbon in 2009) had extended EU competences and majority voting. A Common Foreign and Security Policy had been developed (although still subject to consensus). Troubles in the Eurozone, and then the refugee crisis, had diminished the EU’s image as a successful decision-making organisation.

Perhaps most significant of all, successive enlargements, combined with unrestricted freedom of movement, had resulted in large-scale immigration from EU countries, much of it from eastern Europe. Rightly or wrongly, people were concerned about pressure on already over-burdened public services.

The EU had always had a bad press in the UK, some of it deserved (e.g. the nonsense of MEPs perpetually trekking up and down between Brussels and Strasbourg), some absurd (talk, for example, of the unelected European Commission “dictating” to Britain, which wilfully ignored the complex decision-making process in Brussels). Older voters also remembered the rows about the UK contribution to the EU budget and the struggle between Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors over the latter’s ambitions for political integration.

Finally, many people were not so much voting about the EU as cocking a snook at the metropolitan elite, who they saw as being totally out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. Voter turnout was also low among many in favour of Remain (notably the Scots and the young).

Lessons for public diplomacy?

What lessons does this experience have for the practice of public diplomacy? Not many, I would argue. Both campaigns in the referendum breached the first rule of public diplomacy by making assertions that were untrue or concerned an unknowable future. The most egregious was the Leave campaign’s claim that the UK’s alleged £350 million a week contribution to the EU could be used to fund the National Health Service. But Remain also perpetrated unsubstantiated scare stories about a post-Brexit world, allowing Leave to brand it as “Project Fear”. These misdemeanours were arguably self-cancelling.

Leave campaigners did, however, understand their audience and had a clear message, two essential ingredients for successful public diplomacy. The Remain campaign had no response to the emotive straplines “We want our country back” and “Let’s take back control”. Nor, in light of the relatively thin agreement secured by David Cameron in Brussels, could Remain effectively combat concerns about immigration or the erroneous £350 million budget claim.

In fact, neither side was actually engaged in public diplomacy at all. This was a domestic battle, tantamount to an election campaign, the sole aim of both sides being to achieve a majority on 23 June. The Brexiteers won, but it is sadly apparent that they had no coherent strategy for translating their victory into practical policy.

Nor was there much effective public diplomacy in evidence from international actors. The constraints were considerable: how could anyone in the EU say anything of substance that might not be construed as interfering in the United Kingdom’s internal affairs? Understandable statements to the effect that Britain should not expect a soft exit in the event of a Leave vote were arguably counterproductive, anger at a perceived threat trumping any fears. President Obama managed to infuriate people by suggesting that Brexit would put Britain at the back of the queue for trade negotiations. Even the combined wisdom of the world’s financial institutions could be brutally dismissed by one Brexiteer with the words “Britain’s had enough of experts”.


The truth is that geography and history had destined Britain to sit on the periphery of Europe. Although committed to many of the EU’s common policies, she remained predictably semi-detached in others: outside the single currency, not in Schengen, for a period out of the Social Chapter, resisting any erosion of consensus in foreign and security policy, and firmly opposed to political integration. Messy though this was, it was just about sustainable, and to the benefit of both Britain and her EU partners. Instead, we all now face a mountain of uncertainty.



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