At home and in the Continent: Brexit’s Referendum influence of on the European Identity

Boris Johnson signed Brexit Agreement
Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the Withdrawal Agreement for the UK to leave the EU on January 31st, 2020 (Credits: UK Prime Minister, OGL 3 UK Prime Minister, OGL 3 <>, via Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 14 Issue 8

Brexit was a capital event in recent European history and among many consequences, helped to bring up an identity as a political issue. Brexit impacted both negatively and positively in terms of European identity. The 2016 referendum’s results influenced the European identity and had an impact both on Eurosceptic and Europhile views of the EU. Brexit affects the European identity because it affects British politics and the British identity in the first place. Euroscepticism across Europe revealed scarce or no attachment to both the EU and European identity. On the contrary, Europhilism, suggests a high appreciation of the EU and the European identity. What the first category seems to forget, however, is that two and more identities are not conflicting. Quite the contrary: they are potentially and mutually inclusive. One identity can complete the other, and it does not degrade it. European identity is championed by pro-European people, while those more sceptical towards Brussels put emphasis on the national identity and the attachment of their own country.

The Changing World and “Identitarian” Challenge Between Brexit and the European Integration

Brexit is a crucial event in European history. On June 23rd, 2016 a referendum took place within an intense year at a geopolitical level, among the heavy legacies of the financial crisis, the growth of right- and left-wing populism, religious-inspired terrorism resurgences, as well as the effects of sometimes uncontrolled immigration. In this scenario, the concept of national has been increasingly growing with important repercussions on many Europeans. Particularly, the UK’s departure from the EU will provide important concerns both to the Brits and the European states on the continent in terms of identity. Brexit impacted both negatively and positively in terms of European identity (and cohesion). The European identity-related issues should be interpreted in the light of Europhilism (the more Europhilism, the more the complacency to the European identity) and Euroscepticism (the more Euroscepticism, the more the complacency to the national identity). Identity is something deep within the human psyche, but still it encompasses areas of politics and citizenship, communitarian, and national institutions.

Particularly, the European identity should be seen in the light of the process of European integration, which is both the partial cause and effect of a generalised lack of attachment to the EU by many European citizens. Especially within western countries, a great divide has grown between social strata: great social divisions are visible within the uncommunication between social levels which, however, share a concern over their national and European identity. This issue has become a matter of political choice and confrontation. Two irreconcilable worlds have emerged in the European States today. There are two “identity classes”. On the one hand, we have the “global identities”: people having attachments on their international identity, generally, Europhile, educated, winners of globalisation, living in the cities, immigration-welcoming, included and engaged, with less populistic instinct, younger, with high income and more trust in politicians. On the other hand, there are the “local identities”: people having attachments for their national identity, generally Eurosceptic, uneducated, losers of globalisation, living in the countryside, immigration-fearing, marginalised and disengaged, with more populistic instinct, older, with low income and less trust in politicians.

European integration requires some degree of European identity and identification with Europe (and the EU). Identity exclusivity entails other identities’ exclusion. If a Eurosceptic aptitude is carried out by political actors, there won’t be any possible (and general) further European integration or European identity’s appreciation. And this was reflected in the Brexit framework, which was also a rejection of the European entity and identity as such in favour of a more single national unique identity. The Brexit referendum was not just on economic issues, but also on the EU and the European identity. How does Brexit influence European identity? How Brexit affects Eurosceptics and Europhiles both in the UK and at the EU level? Brexit affects the European identity because it affects the British identity in the first place, and this aspect damages the collective idea of European identity in Great Britain.

The very concept of identity is extremely controversial, but it influences the outcomes of modern democracies’ political processes. European identity can be affected by the Brexit phenomenon and can undergo many changes. The selected authors dealing with Brexit (and identity issues) generally affecting the European identity in a Eurosceptic and Europhile way, concentrate their essays within European and identity dynamics, elaborating their analysis on the fields of psychology, politics, sociology, and economics, history, and geography. Twelve essays are reviewed and exposed throughout the paper to answer the research question, concerning European identity (segment 1), the relationship of Great Britain with the EU and European identity (segment 2), identity in the European context, and current challenges (segment 3).

Identity and the Psychology of a Choice: The Starting Elements Within a European Perspective

As Caporaso-Kim suggests, identity is politically hard to conceptualise. Particularly, the European identity has changed over the last three-quarters of a century. Identity plays a central role in the European integration’s study and it deals with concepts such as culture, patriotism, and nationalism. Identity is a dual concept, it «contains both perceptual and behavioural components» and affects – and is affected by – borders, a crucial concept within the Brexit narrative. Identity is related to “group belonging”, and it is always (politically) framed and reframed, but it is not an “exclusive” concept: the British people can be and feel both British and European. However, it is true that over the years, the EU has increased relevance in the political discourse of the European nations, its good and bad performances have effects on attitudes of its states and peoples, «if not on European identity».

In this sense, Schilde acknowledges the relationship between Europe, the EU, and European identity, which is an unsolved nexus. The European identity might be perceived as a European institution’s top-down product. Surprisingly Schilde explains that a «stronger sense of national identity is positively correlated with one’s readiness to accept […] a sense of Europe in identity» but of course, the author admits that the «EU has not succeeded in luring individuals away from their national identities». On the contrary, the risk is that it could create a Manichean division: elite European citizens and poorer, less educated citizens who left behind, «will reinforce their national and ethnic identities» (ibid. 653), making it impossible for many to believe in the European identity. The impact of European identity on the individual can be «degraded by popular backlashes over EU governance realities», particularly within countries with already high Eurosceptic feelings, such as the UK. Identity is constructed by elements such as the national pride, demographic and country variable, as well as ethnic and linguistic features, which does not exclude that national and European identity can coexist. Education could make people accept this coexistence of more identities; optimistic observers would even say that it would be unnecessary to contrapose national and European identities, whose conceptualisation is hard.

Even harder, as Luhmann suggests. She puts the troubles related to the European identity and the scarce affection for it within the framework of rising global populism. Populism weakens “collective identities” such as the European one. Thus, it does not entail a “collective European identity” but emphasises the “individual national identity”. However, European integration – the principal “engine” for European-identity shaping – is a «positively correlated shared sense of identity». Luhmann suggests that further European and interstate integration might be seen both as an opportunity or a threat by political actors and common people. She shows the correlation between European integration and identity. Cognitively mobilised individuals «tended to feel more European, as integration advances»; once again, here comes up the issue of education. Luhmann suggests that if individuals believe that their country benefits from membership within the EU, they’ll show a greater sense of European identity. Thus, given the 2016 referendum results, the majority of British voters perceived the positivity of European membership. Indeed, that would explain the high level of Euroscepticism within the UK, with close attention to scarce education towards EU’s structure and affairs: essentially, those more educated identify themselves more within the EU, thus European identity.

Identity and identification have an impact and are to be seen from a psychological perspective. Manners uses this latter «to understand emotions such as anger, hate, and passion […] to demonstrate the wider value of the political psychology of European integration». Psychology is useful to understand the network of artificial national illusions and the multiplicity of the layers of identity within the EU. Particularly when that political space is fragmented, loss of confidence in the EU and the rise of populism is likely. The author underlines that Euroscepticism deals with a low general level of knowledge about the EU, and this affects the perception of the European identity in the UK. Within the framework of British identity, the 2016 referendum campaign was framed in terms of “Remain” vs “Leave” emotion. Concerning the first group, the author explains that ninety per cent of British citizens «lack of knowledge to answer even basic questions on the EU». Thus, before being attacked, the EU’s mechanisms should be deeply studied. Education and psychology played crucial roles within the Brits’ majority’s choice to leave the EU but also framing the aversion to the European identity in many British people. This, consequently, undermines a possible European identity. On the other hand, the construction of a British or a European identity should not be considered as a second-order issue of political interest. Manners explains that the influence of Brexit on the European identity had negative consequences since it was fuelled by simplistic solutions and «postcolonial melancholia», a nostalgia of greatness – «psychosis of empire» – worth abandoning the European integration process and damaging the European identity’s construction, particularly in the UK.

Get Ready for Brexit campaign
Launch of largest ever government public information campaign to get public and business owners ready for Brexit (Credits: Cabinet Office, OGL 3 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Great Britain, Euroscepticism, and the Attitude Towards the European Identity

The British attitude towards the EU and European identity has been widely analysed. Carl et al. approach the issue of the European identity affected by Brexit: (historical) scarce affiliation on the EU results in a scarce necessity to boost the European identity within the UK. «Britons’ weak sense of European identity was a key contributor to the Brexit vote», and this weak sense of European identity is a partial explanation of why the UK was the most Eurosceptic country in the EU. Though slightly, the 2016 referendum results certified this. The so-called losers of globalisation in Britain felt they have been marginalised and left behind; they felt they had lost their “primary” British identity without feeling European. «The percentage of the population with an exclusively national self-identity is higher in the UK than in all other EU member states». Furthermore, with a weaker sense of European identity one «will be less likely to perceive supra-national EU institutions as legitimate». Many Brits never felt both British and European citizens over four decades of membership within the EU, which perceived as illegitimate. In this sense, the European identity had to be rejected; and Brexit was the redde rationem to celebrate the divorce from an identity that wasn’t part of many Brits. This weakened the sense of European identity in many (Remainers) British citizens and pro-Europe Europeans. However, considering the historical British track record of scarce affection to the Old Continent and Brussels as well, it is not surprising that the majority expressed its weak sense of European identity in the referendum by voting for a takeback of sovereignty and thus identity. Thus, severing ties with the EU and weakening the Union, Brexit contributed to damaging the European identity.

General British opposition to enter the European project was present from the very start. Great Britain has a long tradition of Euroscepticism. McLaren examines «the degree to which EU citizens do indeed feel their national identities to be under threat by the EU». In general, the EU citizens have ambivalent feelings about the EU as well as the degree they feel European; this phenomenon is accentuated with Great Britain. McLaren depicts the losers of a more integrated and globalised Europe, who are the same who do not positively look to the European identity. Therefore, «in countries where the net benefits are negative, levels of support are expected to be lower than in countries where benefits are positive».

British internal situation is also analysed by George who examines Britain as a fundamental Eurosceptic nation, generally opposing the EU long before the 2016 referendum. He claims that the UK has a natural Euroscepticism, tied to the British identity. Euroscepticism and indifference towards the EU were also based on historical prejudices particularly against France and Germany; therefore, the EU was perceived as the threat of an «undemocratic, bureaucratic» monster, erasing British identity.

This aspect would suggest a rough Manichean division between the continent and the island. Hobolt (2016) too analyses the Brexit vote under an identity perspective: he stresses the scarce affection of many Brits towards the EU, Europe, and the European identity. Anti-establishment – and anti-EU – messages during the 2016 referendum campaign were based on the issues of immigration (which is implicitly linked to identity); «the less well-educated and the less well-off voted in large majorities to leave the EU, while the young graduates in the urban centers voted to stay». The polarisation around the Brexit debate was clearly stated within the message of the two fronts during the referendum: “A leap in the dark” for the Remainers and “take back control” – and identity too – for the Brexiters. People’s «attachment to their nation and their perceptions of people from other cultures influence their attitudes towards European integration» and (European) identity. The author reports that individuals conceiving their national identity as exclusive are likely to be more Eurosceptic, more than that those who feel more open towards a kind of multiple “identitarianism”. Thus, «people who feel strongly European would be more likely to remain in the European Union. In contrast, a stronger national identity is expected to be associated with the Leave vote».

Identity in a European Context: From Migration to Identity Redefinition

Brotman explains the UK is formed by a complex patchwork of identities: from Wales to Scotland, from England to Cornwall, from Yorkshire to Northern Ireland; it is difficult to have a European identity or to be a sponsor of it without having a stable, clear, and unified identity at home. Difficulties of many British people to identify themselves in a European framework are to be found also in this domestic heterogeneity of identifies, which could make people look suspiciously to another continental foreign and abstract identity. Brotman admits the Brexit referendum might have not revealed this internal division: by massively voting “remain”, the City of London, for example, expressed its “European choice” and affection to globalism, multiculturalism, openness to a plurality of identities.

Brexit is a challenge for the European identity, as Leith et al. acknowledge. «European citizenship and the identity have been strongly promoted by the EU» but this has been just marginally accepted by a small minority in the UK. Not only many lacked knowledge around European issues and identity, but also blame “the Europe” for everything bad occurring within the island. The authors explain and explore the concept of European identity. The European identity has been characterised as «unity in diversity», but this concept was not acknowledged by large sections of the British public who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum also because they did not recognise themselves within the European identity and project. The authors point out the limits of a European identity and European integration; Brexit alone cannot be blamed for flaws due to EU’s internal and structural deficiencies, since Europe itself «lacks many of the core components of a national identity – a shared language, religion, educational system and media».

Ammaturo explores the European identity with a connection both to migration and Brexit to show today’s construction of European citizenship. These two issues are important when dealing with European identity and determining the split between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Borders, imperialism, and colonialism are related to both the UK and European identities. «The concepts of “European identity” and “European citizenship” cannot be used interchangeably, as the former refers to the traits (real or ideal) that characterise a certain individual as being “European”, while the latter […] defines the legal status of belonging to the European. The author explains that the UK as a whole was never interested in strengthening the EU identity; UK membership in the EU was a «marriage of convenience […] aimed at enhancing British prestige and wealth, rather than as a […] project of […] European integration».

This latter issue is also the topic of the essay from Wellings, who emphasises the role of nationalism and populism that conquered many political parties in Europe. Among inequalities, economic growth, globalisation, nationalistic instances have found room within the political arena, and «national identities have found more place within the political discourse of European disintegration and lack or weakening of collective European identity. «The process of European identity formation was notably weak compared to national identities». Heavy British nationalism undermined the fragile structure of the EU and its identity. Historically, «whereas the EU had been widening and deepening […] integrating new states into its forms for governance, the UK had been on a different trajectory». The prove were the 2016 referendum results, which were the product of nationalism and «placed “the British people” at the center of politics».

Identity’s Influences and Weaknesses of the UK: The Cleavages Between Europhilia and Euroscepticism

In conclusion, the impacts of the UK leaving the EU has repercussions from many points of view, firstly both on British and European identity. The European identity both within the European continent and the UK had and have an important impact within the respective societies. The authors analysed the causes and effects of Brexit with strong references at the level of European (and British) identity.

In segment one, Schilde approached the relations between Europe and European identity as well as the links between the latter and access to the EU. The concept of multiple and exclusive identities has an impact on policy choices. Luhman wrote about support for European integration amid the rise of populism in Europe, which helped to undermine the European identity of many Brits. Caporaso-Kim linked identity and awareness. Manners analysed Brexit from a psychological perspective, emphasising the divide between people and elites, which was affected (and are affected) by the debate around the European identity.

Carl et al. illustrate how the UK was historically the most Eurosceptic country in the EU, which explains rooted British scepticism towards the EU and European identity. McLaren deals with the British fear of losing national identity, but also the little support and attention to European dynamics. George added cultural and economic factors explaining British (negative) influence over the European identity and attachment to Europe. Hobolt narrated anti-establishment messages in the UK as well as the important social cleavages in the country at the level of education, culture, and economy.

In the third segment, Brotman talked about the role of London within the British system and the multiple identities existing within the City in antithesis to the countryside (domestic identity clash). Leith et al. underline the concept of the exclusive national identity of the British people. Wellings developed the concept of European integration, as well as rooted Euroscepticism. Finally, Ammaturo exposed the topics of the refugee crisis and Brexit as challenges stimulating the European identity.

Education is related to identity-building: Euroscepticism reveals scarce or no attachment to the EU and the European identity. On the contrary, Europhilism entails a high degree of attachment to the EU and the European identity. Those who support the “identity exclusivity” – like the Eurosceptics/Brexiteers – entail the exclusion of other identities and do not think European identity should be added to the British one and often believe that the two identities – British and European – are mutually exclusive and cannot go on together. European affiliation and citizenship don’t affect in any way the “Britishness” of the Brits; potentially, it strengthens it, completes it. It does not degrade or eliminate it.

However, those holding strong national identity are not necessarily more Eurosceptic, and, vice versa, those with weaker national identity are not more Europhile. Individuals can decide to coexist with more than one identity. There is a correlation between national identity preference with Euroscepticism and a correlation between European identity and EurophilismMore Euroscepticism equals more affection to national identity and less to the European identity and the EU. Euroscepticism weakens the concept of European identity. Those who feel more linked to the EU continent are Europhile are keener to positively consider European identity as well as affiliation to the EU. On the contrary, those more sceptical and anti-EU emphasise a national identity without feeling an attachment to the European identity.

Brexit was an example of how this logic worked: European identity has been shocked by the 2016 referendum results, the result of a malaise lasted for forty years and partial disaffection to the EU and the European identity (not necessarily Europe as such). The result was that the European identity was undermined along with the EU. Many Brits will not cease to intrinsically feel European, but the “Leave” victory affected the concept of European identity in the UK and the EU: surely it did not contribute to the concept of more European integration. The outcomes of Brexit influence on the European identity are twofold.

  1. Positive for the Eurosceptic
    1. Positive for the Eurosceptics within the EU, the Brits take back their national identity as well as control;
    2. Positive for the Eurosceptics in Great Britain, Brussels’ control is over, and a “new deal” is possible under the course of a “stronger” British identity.
  2. Negative for the Europhiles:
    1. Negative for the Europhiles within the EU, Brexit damages the project of further integration and cohesion within the EU;
    2. Negative for the Europhiles within the EU, the ties with the continent are damaged. Euroscepticism fuels Euroscepticism and weakens the European identity concept, both at home (the UK) and abroad (in Europe).


Ammaturo, Francesca Romana (2019). “Europe and whiteness: Challenges to European identity and European citizenship in light of Brexit and the ‘refugees/migrants crisis’”. European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 22, Num. 4, pp. 548–566.

Brotman, Alexander (2020). “Brexit and its Many Identities in the UK”. Available on:, 30.03.2020.

Caporaso, James A.; Kim, Min-hyung (2009). “The dual nature of European identity: subjective awareness and coherence”. Journal of European Public Policy, Vol. 16, Num. 1, pp. 19-42.

Carl, Noah; Dennison, James; Evans, Geoffrey (2019). “European but not European enough: An explanation for Brexit”. European Union Politics, Vol. 20, Num. 2, pp. 282-304.

George, Stephen (2000). “Britain: Anatomy of a Eurosceptic state”. Journal of European Integration, Vol. 22, Num. 1, pp. 15-33.

Hobolt, Sara B. (2016). “The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent”. Journal of European Public Policy, Vol. 23, Num. 9, pp. 1259-1277.

Leith, Murray Stewart; Sim, Duncan; Van Der Zwet, Arno; Boyle, Elizabeth (2019). “What does Brexit Tell Us about Our Understanding of European Identity?”. The Political Quarterly, Vol. 90, Num. 3, pp. 559-564.

Luhmann, Sybille (2017). “A Multi-Level Approach to European Identity: Does Integration Foster Identity”. Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 55, Num. 6, pp. 1360-1379.

Manners, Ian (2018). “Political Psychology of European Integration: The (Re)production of Identity and Difference in the Brexit Debate”. Political Psychology, Vol. 39, Num. 6, pp. 1213-1232.

McLaren, Lauren M. (2004). “Opposition to European integration and fear of loss of national identity: Debunking a basic assumption regarding hostility to the integration project”. European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 43, pp. 895-911.

Schilde, Kaija E. (2014). “Who are the Europeans? European Identity Outside of European Integration”. Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 52, Num. 3, pp. 650-667.

Wellings, Ben (2020). “Brexit, nationalism and disintegration in the European Union and the United Kingdom”. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2020.1753664.

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