Immigration: a cause of Brexit, denied by the Left

Summary: The EU’s own polls show that immigration is the top concern of its people. Unless they change course, Britain might be just the fist to leave. Also, after declaring its supporters to be racists, now some on the Left adopt the Brexit vote as an expression of their views and policies. They ignore the paramount role of massive immigration. Their blindness to this is logical, since it is one of their top priorities — and deeply unpopular with the public. Here is some evidence about its role in Brexit, data you will probably not see elsewhere.

EU Immigration
From The Economist, 17 February 2011.

One sign of the changing political dynamics in the West is the number of issues which have supporters and opponents on both Left and Right. America’s foreign wars are one example; Brexit is another. The Right more easily claims Brexit as their own, having long-held suspicions of the EU.

The Left also does so, but requires more contortions. Before the vote they described Brexit supporters as racists. But everybody loves a winner, and now some on the Left claim it as their own — for two reasons. First, as a rebellion against the establishment (although co-rulers of Europe, they effortlessly don the robes of outcasts). Second, they attribute Brexit to stress from rising inequality and dislike of the 1%. A good example of this is Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept in “Brexit Is Only the Latest Proof of the Insularity and Failure of Western Establishment Institutions”. I am a fan, but he imposes his values and concerns onto those of the British “leave” voters, without much evidence.

Another example is “Inequality not personalities drove Britain to Brexit” by Matthew Goodwin (prof politics at U of Kent) at Politico — “Angst, alienation and resentment fueled the vote to leave the EU.” At least he mentions immigration, but only mixed in with traditional leftist causes.

These stories do not well match the facts. Most importantly, they ignore the large role of immigration. Greenwald never mentions it. This blindness is understandable. Support for mass immigration is a defining characteristic of the Left today. Greenwald cannot fairly speak of it, so he closes his eyes and pretends the issue doesn’t exist.

Politico gives a more detailed and well-supported analysis: “The behind-the-scenes story of a failed campaign to keep Britain in the European Union”. Note the large role of immigration. For more evidence of this see “Why Immigration Pushed Britons to Brexit” by Reihan Salam at Slate.

For stronger evidence about the key role of immigration in Brexit — and why other nations might follow the UK’s example — see the most recent of the EU’s extensive public opinion surveys: the Autumn 2015 report of the Standard Eurobarometer conducted during 7 – 17 November 2015 European Commission. The results tell us much, for this was a significant period for Europe.

“The refugee crisis entered a new phase in summer 2015, when more than 100,000 people a month entered Europe by sea in August, September and October. This means that almost 900,000 refugees and migrants entered the EU by sea in 2015, compared with 216,054 in 2014. During his State of the Union Address on 9 September 20155, Jean-Claude Juncker emphasised the crucial importance of this issue for the EU: “The first priority today is and must be addressing the refugee crisis”. …On 13 November, Paris suffered the most deadly terrorist attacks in France since the Second World War, in which 130 people were killed. Islamic State claimed responsibility.”

The poll clearly shows that people in the EU are very concerned about immigration, and becoming more so: “Immigration is now the main concern at national level…”.

Poll asking the most important issues facing the EU:
Spring vs. August 2015 (click to enlarge).

Poll: most important issue facing the EU

How these concerns changed over time (click to enlarge).

EU Poll - Immigration as top concern

The poll asks about concerns in two ways. First, what are the top concerns for one’s nation? (The following sections are close paraphrases from the report.)

  • Immigration is now the leading national concern in 12 EU Member States, up from 4 in
    spring 2015. The highest levels of concern are Germany at 76%, Malta at 65%, and Denmark at 60%.
  • Concern about immigration has increased in 25 Member States. The largest increases were in Slovenia (+47 percentage points to 48%), Finland (+35 to 41%), the Netherlands (+33 to 56%), and Germany (+30 to 76%).

Second, what are the top concerns for the EU as a whole?

  • “Immigration is the most important issue facing the EU in all Member States except Portugal, where the state of Member States’ public finances (38%) is seen as the priority.
  • “Concern about immigration increased significantly in all Member States, in most by more than 20 percentage points (except in Malta and Italy where concern was already high). In Slovenia, the percent identifying immigration as a problem for the EU increased by 43 percentage points since spring 2015.”

Looking at the poll results for the EU as a whole, the EuroBarometer report concludes…

“Immigration is easily the main issue at European level, pushing terrorism into second place. The order in which Europeans rank the main issues facing the European Union has also changed radically since spring 2015.

“Immigration is now seen as by far the largest problem facing the EU (58%), up 20 percentage points since the survey of spring 2015. After increasing in spring 2011 (up to 20%), mentions of immigration fell and then stabilised until autumn 2012 (with a score of 8%). Since then, this issue has gained ground continuously (+50 points in total).

“Terrorism is now the second issue facing the European Union (25%), as the result of a similar increase since spring 2015 (+8 points). After remaining relatively unchanged between autumn 2011 and spring 2014 (at 6%), concern about terrorism at the EU level has since gained 19 points.

“The economic situation has fallen from second place in spring 2015 to third place (21%). Concerns about this issue have decreased significantly since spring 2015 (-6 points), continuing its downward trend since autumn 2011’s score of 59%. It has therefore lost 38 points over the period).

“Unemployment and the Member States’ public finances are now ranked equally (17% in both cases). Again, these two items have lost ground (-7 points for unemployment since spring 2015 and -21 since spring 2013; and -6 points for the state of public finances since spring 2015 and -17 since spring 2012).

“Far behind the five main issues identified at the EU level, respondents then mentioned: crime (8%, unchanged since spring 2015), rising prices (7%, -2 points since spring 2015 and -10 since autumn 2011), climate change (6%, unchanged since spring 2015), the EU’s influence in the world (6%, -1), the environment (5%, 0), taxation (3%, -1), pensions (3%, -1) and energy supply (3%, -1).”

How do the British people feel about the EU?

There is no current data on this, but the available long-term data shows no trend. For details turn to the EU’s Eurobarometer Interactive. Through 2011 there was usually more Brits who believed the EU “not benefited” them (lightest blue) over those who believed it has “benefited” them (darkest blue). Source here. Click to enlarge.

Poll: UK benefits from EU?

How attached are the UK people to the EU? Weakly attached, with no trend over 2006 – 2014. Source here. Click to enlarge.


The ballots for referenda ask “yes” or “no”. Voters give no reasons. Most voters probably have only a confused understanding of their reasons (we’re rationalizing animals, not rational ones). We can have some evidence as to the reasons for the Brexit vote, with immigration high on the list. We can only guess at their relative importance.

These guesses will guide politicians as they implement Brexit. Let’s hope they act wisely.

Posts about Brexit

  1. Politics of the EU: “Vanity and Venality” — by Susan Watkins (editor of the New Left Review).
  2. Brexit was logical, neither racist nor irrational.
  3. An anthropologist looks at Brexit: The World Changed Overnight — By Maximilian Forte.
  4. The reactions to Brexit show its true significance.
  5. Immigration: a cause of Brexit, denied by the Left.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about immigration, about populism, about Campaign 2016, and especially these…

13 thoughts on “Immigration: a cause of Brexit, denied by the Left”

  1. Comments to the last line graph do not match the data: “Not benefited” > “Benefited” since 1998?

  2. This is a bit confusing–my impression was that “the left” (the pro-Remain part at least) was denouncing Brexit as racist and xenophobic, which therefore relates to the question of immigration. It’s not clear to me why you think the left denies the immigration factor in the vote.

    1. Prof Forte,

      You accurately describe the Left’s view of Brexit before the vote. I’m describing how they are spinning the result. Everybody loves a winner, and the Left is claiming the vote as an expression of their views. It’s smart politics.

      Thanks for pointing that out. It obviously was not clear. I’ll tweak the text.

  3. A question from a reader

    “Did fear-mongering backfire in the Brexit vote, concordant with people being just fed up with the ruling class dynamic? People rather suffer through uncertainty/turbulence rather than endure more of the same on a road to no where?

    That’s an important question. I doubt it can be answered by someone on our side of the pond, however. More generally, we don’t and can’t know why people voted as they did. When pollsters ask “why”, people tend to give socially respectable answers. This might be why “protecting sovereignty” was the top answer in the post-Bretit votes. It’s the UK version of saying I voted for “motherhood and apply pie.”

    From my business I know many people in the elites ranks of the UK. Their reactions usually read like quotes from interviews held with aristos in pre-revolutionary France. The 50% + of EU people concerned about mass immigration are all racists, too silly to even listen to why do they get votes?

    When I point out the obvious: that mass immigration is socially and economically destabilizing, for which there are ample examples from history (supported by logic and theory) — and that the bottom 70% bear all the unpleasant effects (as Parisian elites are unaffected by the surrounding ring cities of poor immigrants) — their reaction is deafness.

    At some point this becomes “Let them eat cake.” (an urban legend that captures the aristo’s distain for their people in 18th C France).

    The concern about mass immigration is prevalent across the EU and rising fast. History suggests that elites ignoring widespread and intense public concern is the fast track to loss of regime legitimacy. Political destabilization can happen quickly, with ugly consequences as outsiders filling the vacuum.

    Unless elites respond, I suspect the political problems of the UK and the EU have just begun. I begin to suspect this will not end well for Europe, although it is too soon to say.

  4. This is getting much attention: “What If Anything Does Brexit Really Signify?” by Satyajit Das at Naked Capitalism — “When they sit down to provide the final verdict on 23 June 2016, future historians will ponder several issues.”

    I’ll bet that Satyajit Das is wrong on all 6 of these questions.

    First, the fact that the referendum was called will cause bafflement.”

    Too minor to concern historians. Why WWI began is important. Why individual nations joined or left the EU might be important. The trivial political tactics leading to Brexit probably will be considered trivia (far less than that qualifying for Trivia Pursuit).

    Second, the unedifying debate will merit careful analysis. The tone was shrill, lacking civility.”

    Too commonplace to concern historians.

    Third, the surprise at the result among those who voted to remain will be scrutinised.”

    Too trivial to be remembered, let alone discussed.

    Fourth, the significance of the ultimate decision on core beliefs will be eagerly studied.”

    Like the many previous referenda about the EU (many considered Earth-shaking at the time), this might become too trivial as an influence on people’s core beliefs.

    Fifth, the obsession with financial market effects in the aftermath of the decision will confound posterity.”

    Only if they remember these market movements, which I doubt. The claims that these are 10 or 20 sigma events are bizarre (just the many many previous events declared so improbably that they would have occurred only once in Earth’s geological history).

    Sixth, history will have to decide whether the vote was simply a mutiny on H.M.A.S Britannia or an influential one on the shape of the modern world”

    That will be obvious to future historians.

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