This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar


Why don’t pro-Europeans mobilise?

London_Brexit_pro-EU_protest_March_25_2017_31This Tuesday, while most of us where thinking of other things, I was at the Social Market Foundation, talking about Brexit and euroscepticism.

In the course of questions at the end, I was asked whether British pro-Europeans displayed the same range and variety of positions as sceptics, to which I noted mobilisation hadn’t really happened. A bit more harshly, I said that a lot of pro-EU activity consists of going a demo in London, followed by lunch at Pizza Express, which probably wasn’t enough.

As a general rule, if I’m going to be snippy, then I feel I should explain myself, so you can judge better whether it’s warranted or not.

In essence, pro-Europeans have faced two interlinked issues, one on the supply side and one on the demand side.

Demand: a lack of fundamental challenge

If we consider mobilisation around the issue of European integration, then identity plays an important role. For sceptics, the threat to a core part of their social identity – their nationality – has endlessly been used to move people to action: we often focus on the control part of “let’s take back control”, but we also need to consider the half-hided ‘us’ too. National identity is taken as natural and eternal, a bedrock on which we act out our daily lives and our sense of community: the Manchester attacks demonstrate that all too well.

As such, eurosceptics have always had a strong identificational base from which to work. If you want to take that to a more extreme position, then all euroscepticism might be conceptualised as nationalism, dressed in either the language of the left or the right: I hesitate to go that far, but the point is well-made.

By contrast, pro-Europeans lack the same depth of emotional belonging. Very few people indeed consider themselves just ‘European’ and those that do are typically the sort of people I mentioned in my talk: cosmopolitan types, who see the EU as part of a bigger package of European-ness. In broad terms, these are people who will have the resources and the inclination to be able to continue their Anywhere-ish lifestyles post-Brexit. Thus, the loss of EU membership is painful, but not necessarily critical in the same way that national identity is for sceptics.

This isn’t to suggest that the substantial volumes of people who have turned out (and continue to turn out) for pro-EU demonstrations don’t really care, but rather that they have more space to adapt their identification politics and so less incentive to translate action on the streets into concerted political activity.

Supply: the costs of dominance

On the other side of the equation is the paradoxical over-supply of broadly pro-EU policy outcomes. Once EU membership was secured, the political and economic establishment moved to take that as a given. Certainly, there were many issues and problems with the specifics of that membership, but the broad thrust was one of participation, that being the best way to change the things one didn’t like.

Seen in this light, pro-Europeans had no strong incentive to create specific political organisations, partly because so many others seemed to be doing that for them, partly because the issue was so environmental and structural as to make action for membership per se appear rather ridiculous. This is underlined by the sole mobilisation that did take play, namely among federalists, who were the only ones not served by the array of groups already out there.

This is true across the EU, where groups specifically devoted to promoting the EU are few and far between. If there is a difference in the British case, then it is that in the UK there was never really the same attempt by groups to turn European positions into more pro-active ones, or to integrate more fully the European with the national: instead, the British line has been very instrumental, both for politicians and economic agents.


None of this is to say that pro-EU mobilisation is impossible, but rather it will face persistent difficulties, even as the UK moves towards departure from the organisation. While there will logically be an associated shift in the establishment to a non-member status, this will not address the identificational issue, which will be made all the more complicated should there be very limited barriers to access. That membership was tried, and failed, is something that will cast a long shadow on those that would have the UK join once more.


Recent Articles

How to be awkward in the European Union

Published on by and | No Comments

A bit of a quiet week this week: British politicians are launching their manifestos, Macron’s naming his first administration, Trump’s Trump. Rather than get sucking into the usual hot-take approach, I want to step back and think about the notion of awkwardness in the EU. The UK is, famously, the ‘awkward partner’ (in George’s phrase) […]

Brexit à la française

Published on by and | No Comments

As that wise old owl of eurosceptic theorising, Dr Richard North, once observed, there are no Brexit experts, for the simple that Brexit hasn’t happened. It’s good to be reminded of this from time to time, if only to reflect on the variety of opinion that’s out there. The past weeks have served up two fine […]

May’s rhetorical Brexit trap

Published on by and | No Comments

To say that the past week has been a poor one for Article 50 would be something of an understatement: the fall-out from last Wednesday’s ‘Brexit-supper‘ culminated yesterday with Theresa May holding a press conference in front of Number 10, claiming that some Europeans were deliberately interfering in the General Election. It would be easy […]

Moving determinedly towards the door: the UK’s Article 50 notification letter

Published on by and | Comments Off

Today’s an important one in the Brexit saga. With the submission of formal notification to begin Article 50 negotiations, the UK has crossed an important threshold that cannot be easily crossed, whatever the legalities. It also matters because it represents the final opportunity for the UK to shape the agenda of that process. This cannot […]

What to look for in Article 50

Published on by and | Comments Off

Seeing as we’re nearly at the second phase of Brexit – the negotiations for departure – it’s an opportune moment to tell you that I’ve started podcasting again, with a guide to the Article 50 timeline. Quite apart from the underlining that ‘two years’ isn’t really two years – maybe one and a bit years, once you take […]

Hubris on the road to Brexit

Published on by | Comments Off

I was going to write about hubris and nemesis, but to be in keeping with the spirit of the age in these parts, let’s work on a more local formulation the same ideas. Pride comes before a fall. Looking around Westminster, there’s plenty of pride. Pride from a government that has a commanding lead in […]

Issue discovery and Brexit: How will we know what all the points of impact might be?

Published on by and | Comments Off

Speaking at another Brexit-themed talk in Antwerp this week, I found myself once again noting the matter of issue discovery. Despite being over 8 months after the referendum, which itself was confirmed as happening in May 2015, and with years of debate beforehand, we still find ourselves in a position where new elements keep on being discovered. […]

What about the abyss?

Published on by and | Comments Off

I’ve been looking back at my posts from last summer, when things Brexit-y were in much more obvious flux. this was triggered by last week’s post on the looming Article 50 notification, which reminded me that I’d sketched out some options. Briefly re-stated, these suggested that the UK would aim for either close or distant relations with […]

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.