The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Essays

Belonging to Europe

Jonathan D. Teubner

A Britain First demonstration in London, April 2017; Matthew Chattle/Alamy Live News/Alamy Stock Photo.

In late 2010, The United Kingdom's recently elected Conservative-led coalition government decided that it was high time to take care of Britain’s “immigration problem.” One of the first acts of the Conservatives was to revise the citizenship exam.1Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, third edition, revised (London, England: Stationery Office, 2017). More British history and tradition, less advice on how to successfully order a pint of beer, seemed to be the solution. In hindsight, revising a citizenship exam was never going to mollify a rising sense that something had changed since 1973, the year Britain joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union. But revising the exam was only the first step, if a feeble one. As aggressive administrative tinkering ratcheted up over the course of the coalition government and throughout the subsequent general election campaign of 2015, Conservatives increasingly felt pressured by their right wing to entertain a renegotiation of their relationship with the EU, on whose doorstep had been laid the blame for the demographic changes of the last three decades. Small efforts to emphasize the history, culture, and customs of Great Britain or to reform employment contracts and work benefits no longer seemed sufficient.

Goaded on by their radical counterparts in the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Conservatives then opted for a more drastic measure: The British people would be given the opportunity to vote whether to remain in or leave the EU. The referendum, scheduled for June 2016, soon became popularly known as “Brexit.” The outcome was surprising, in a year marked by electoral surprises: Fifty-two percent of the British electorate voted to exit the EU.

The ultimate form of Brexit remains unclear: Will it be “hard” or “soft?” Will the UK leave the EU altogether? Stay in the common market? Allow EU passport holders to work in the UK? Regardless of how these questions are ultimately answered, the message has been sent that Britain will no longer belong to the EU in the way it once did.

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