The Affective Understanding of Post-Brexit European Integration*

Reposted from the DCU Brexit Institute with permission. Original link here:

The Affective Understanding of Post-Brexit European Integration

The Affective Understanding of Post-Brexit European Integration

Simona Guerra (University of Leicester)

Theofanis Exadaktylos (University of Surrey)

Roberta Guerrina (University of Surrey)

Euroscepticism as a subject of research has taken a new turn following the 2016 British referendum to leave the European Union (EU) in terms of blame attribution and political polarization. Chris Flood had already observed in the early 2000s that Euroscepticism presents challenges as it represents a multitude of political viewpoints: scapegoating the EU on excessive regulation and intervention on the right, or on neo-liberal programmes on the left. The British Referendum was a moment when these viewpoints clashed, creating a new affective environment for EU politics. Our contribution offers an original study on the role of emotions and the embedded narratives that emerged following the outcome of the Referendum to leave the EU and how these are likely to influence future processes of European integration.

Public attitudes towards the EU and debates on the EU emerge largely from domestic political conflict. Focusing on the EU Referendum campaign in Britain, the political and social debates following the vote were shaped by the embedded traditions and narratives, or discourse, at the domestic level, where the referendum itself played the role of a decisive turning point. A turning point or crisis is based on ‘othering’, i.e. in constructing a dichotomy between Self vs. Other. In this case, this narrative was constructed around everyday lived experiences, where the national context is contrasted with the international narrative, represented by Brussels and the EU. National political actors can use a critique for internal political reasons, with blame entering the narrative. ‘Blaming involves a normative stance’ and specific actors need to be blameworthy. Blame is not hard to do for people (see Wodak and Angouri 2014) and becomes an appropriate response to perceived wrongdoings, and towards the EU. This strengthened the opposition towards the EU and the rhetoric deployed by both Leavers and Remainers.

In our research project, ‘Brexit or Bremain: Britain and the 2016 British Referendum’ we commissioned a survey with YouGov just two weeks after the EU Referendum (6-7 July 2016). Our survey data showed an increasing polarization of emotions, and the predominance of uncertainty, anxiety and apprehension. Such feelings were mostly shared by Scottish citizens, Londoners, women and very young people. Our study shows that positive feelings are almost completely absent from the answers, with uncertainty (‘towards the future’, ‘towards economic stability’) affecting more those who voted Remain, and anger more Leave voters (‘taking back control’). There is only one positive emotion, hope, among a full list of references to feelings describing the lack of certainty and rage that seem to reflect on negative life expectations that characterized the vote.

As already highlighted by Capelos and Exadaktylos at ‘the juncture of emotions and cognition lies the feeling of institutional, political and social trust’. Emotions and an affective approach to understanding the process of European integration have become critical to our understanding of the current state of events in the EU. Studying emotions in politics is a relatively recent field of research and has supplanted previous analysis on the role of passions and humours. Adopting an approach that underlines the ‘autonomy of affect’ as well as its disentanglement from ‘emotion’, where emotion is a subjective content, as personal, enables us to understand the vote. Emotions are here understood as qualified intensity, that advance into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning, that have been mobilized by the British referendum within and beyond Britain, and can help to understand public Euroscepticism and the process of EU integration.

Looking at the verbatim comments on our survey on the reasons for voting Remain and Leave, it becomes clear that the Remain campaign seemed not to gain emotional momentum, while the Leave campaign succeeded in evoking a higher emotional response amongst the citizens. From our research, we can safely assert that uncertainty played a major affective role in the voters’ choice in the EU referendum. Some rare positive feelings, such as hope, excitement and happiness characterized Leavers, while young people mostly felt uncertain, anxious, disappointed, afraid and sceptical. The widespread uncertainty and apprehension across different social statuses stressed the extent to which the vote in the referendum was a form of protest, but also hope towards a possible change –  and indeed those in a lower social status felt more hopeful (33%). The tension laid on the Eurosceptical narrative gave impetus to the urgency to leave the EU, although later Leave voters could feel shocked, as Davies underlines. Multiple grievances do not allow generalizations or simple explanations, but express the strength of a position, that of Brexiteers, that has been also defined as revolution.

Within domestic narratives we can locate debates on identity shifting and formation: Robert Tombs points to the unravelling of Englishness, starting with the growth of ‘Scottish nationalism’, a reaction to the sense of separateness growing among the nations of the United Kingdom, with ‘the political institutions that go along with that’. This has increased the salience and the emotional dimension of the campaign and shifted the debate towards the Brexit revolution or ‘revolt against the establishment’. This is critical to understanding the referendum, the current debate on Brexit, and the future of the study of public Euroscepticism overall. While the process of EU integration has regained momentum with levels of public support on the rise, with an increasingly more positive image of the EU among 17 out of the (current) 28 Member States (Eurobarometer 90 2018), there are still significant negative perceptions among citizens in Greece (35%), Czechia (32%), France, Italy and the United Kingdom (27%), while the debate in the UK remains crystallized between two opposing positions that have shown insignificant moves to one or the other direction.

This is not surprising, as the emotions that have characterized the campaign and the outcome of the referendum vote have seen their increasing salience among both Remainers and Leavers (Brexiteers). This helps understand how the outcome of the final departure of Britain from the EU can further sustain different domestic tensions and dynamics, and why we should take into account the role of emotions during the British referendum and in the years since then.


This blog post is based on the paper, “When Euroscepticism meets populism: Emotions and the 2016 British EU Referendum” which will be presented in April at the ECPR Joint Sessions in Mons, Belgium.  These three are also authors of the collaborative work,  “Gender, ownership and engagement during the European Union referendum: gendered frames and the reproduction of binaries”,  European Journal of Gender and Politics vol 1, no 3 pp 387-404.

Dr. Simona Guerra ( is Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Leicester and Visiting Research Fellow at Universidad Carlos III Madrid, with an expertise in issues of Euroscepticism, emotions and attitudes towards European integration. She is the co-editor of ECPR GOA journal Political Research Exchange.

Dr. Theofanis Exadaktylos ( is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Surrey, examining issues of crisis, austerity, emotional economy, political trust and policy implementation in Europe. He is the co-editor of the JCMS Annual Review.

Prof. Roberta Guerrina ( is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey and an expert in EU gender politics and policies. She currently holds the Jean Monnet Chair in gender and the EU. She is the co-editor of the JCMS Annual Review.