Brexit and Borders: How the Issue of Immigration Came to Dominate the EU referendum.

3 mins read

By Joe di Trapani

On June 16th 2016, images emerged of the then UKIP (UK Independence party) leader, and a figurehead of the Vote Leave campaign, Nigel Farage in front of a billboard. A caption: ‘BREAKING POINT: The EU has failed us all was plastered over an image of a queue of refugees and asylum seekers. This was met with both utter derision and rallying support across the British public, capturing how society had become enthralled by the issue of border control. 10 days later when Britain voted leave, polls estimated that 49% of leave voters saw immigration as the most important issue influencing their vote. How then, did a country that in the 2005 general election viewed immigration as less important than health, crime, and taxation, come to be so rapt by the issue?

Part of the answer lies in the impact that the global financial crisis, and the pursuit of austerity policies by successive Conservative governments, has had on British people’s views on immigrants and immigration. From the period 2007-2017, Britain has seen a continuing decline in real-term wages with average weekly wages in 2007 (£475) eclipsing that same figure in 2017 (£458), despite rising prices. What is more, the onset of the financial crisis and the concomitant austerity measures interrupted a decade long decline in wealth inequality in the UK and consequently the wealth gap between rich and poor has continued to widen. Whilst Britain has seen its wealth grow since the mid 2000s, this wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the richest in society. Meanwhile the wealth of the average adult has fallen from £99,000 in 2006 to £84,000 in 2014. Moreover, the Conservative Party has been the architect of a social housing crisis which, following the 60% cut in capital investment in this sector, has seen the number of rough sleepers in Britain double in the period 2010-2016.

These harsh economic realities, in particular the growing wealth disparity in the UK, have helped foster a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Though the poorest in society have had legitimate grievances regarding assaults on their welfare provisions, the economic hardship endured due to austerity policies has become increasingly framed by some as the result of ineffective immigration policy, or even as the result of immigrants themselves. The prominence of (anti)immigration as an issue grew significantly, evidenced no better than through the rise of UKIP, a party that is defined almost entirely by its fiercely anti-immigration policies. In the 2005 General Election, UKIP received only 2% of the vote, yet by 2015, and with austerity in full swing, this figure had risen to 12%, with the party also gaining 12 seats in the European Parliament.

Compounding the increasingly hostile domestic environment, the global political context in the run up to the Brexit vote gave the issue of immigration an added dimension. The terror attacks in Paris, November 2015 and in Brussels, March 2016 sent shockwaves of insecurity throughout Britain and the rest of the continent. Once it had been established that some of the Paris attackers had immigrated into Europe amongst the many Syrian refugees, the entire issue of immigration became inextricably tied to the issue of security. In fact, at the outset of the referendum campaign, Iain Duncan-Smith, Conservative MP and Brexiteer, claimed that Britain’s open border ‘does not allow us to check and control people that may come and carry out similar attacks’. Not only did remarks like these set the parameters of the debate early on, they did so by playing on the security fears of the British public. What is even more reprehensible is that Britain does not even have an ‘open-border’ in the sense that it is not a part of the Schengen Zone, proving Duncan-Smith’s claim to be untruthful.

Besides the fear mongering of individuals, the use of a referendum in itself necessitated the surfacing of hot-button issues, like immigration, that average voters could base their decisions on. As is no doubt the case in other EU member states, the political, financial and judicial intricacies of Britain’s relationship with the EU were little known to the general public going into the referendum campaign. Consequently, issues that gained more traction were the ones average voters could comprehend. The Leave campaign succeeded in billing the issue of immigration in black and white terms. Their stance was a simple command stop immigration and was therefore an easier message to drive home. The binary nature of the ‘in’ or ‘out’ dynamic meant that little, if any, considerations were given to matters of implementation if Brexit became a reality.

Importantly, not all of the 51% of Leave voters were motivated solely by anti-immigrant sentiment. Legitimate concerns over the economy, law making, and redirecting funds to the NHS were raised during the campaign. Nonetheless, the prominence of immigration as a factor influencing voting, and the fact that many Britons were fed misleading stories about immigrants, is tragically apparent. If Brexit and Britain’s obsession with the issue of immigration is to be of any future value, it should be hoped that other member states with anti-EU grievances take stock of the limitations of referenda as the vitriolic taste of the campaign still lingers in British society and immigration persists as a political hot-topic.


Joe di Trapani is an exchange student from Britain where he is studying for a bachelors in International History and Politics. He has a penchant for modern history and particularly the ever changing roles of international organisations during this period.


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