Fear and Referendums – The impact of the terrorist threat on the EU referendum in the UK

By Chiara Cappellini, an Italian second year Bsc Social Policy and Government student at the London School of Economics.


Fear is one of the most powerful political tools, which can be used to direct masses.

At the turn of 2016 we see the rhetoric of European right wing parties have been tainted with fear. In the past year, European citizens have witnessed three major terrorist attacks hitting Paris, the heart of the European continent. These events have surely affected public opinion on the ability of the EU to uphold security, and have reminded the European citizens what ‘fear’ is.

The question is: will fear determine the outcomes of the EU referendum in the UK?

The Paris attacks might appear as a bloody cherry on top of several years of incrementing Euro- sceptism. As highlighted by Junker, in these last three years Europe has confronted some of the most difficult tests. At the turn of 2016 we see no end to the Greece crisis, rising support for right wing parties especially in France and Austria, incrementing numbers of refugees on the Italian and Hungarian border.  The UK’s rigid conservative agenda persists, and we will soon be approaching a EU referendum. The conservatives have been rewarded for their tough approach on EU requests, and have now approved air strikes on Syria. At the moment, fear seems to be dominating the political scene across the entire continent.

In the short term, the attacks in November have proven the failure of the ideals behind the European Union for many Europeans. In reference to conducted studies, we see a very strong correlation between terrorist attacks and a swing in political opinion.

This was witnessed also in the UK, and in the brief aftermath of the November attacks we have seen opinions invert, and the ‘remain’ side gain majority. A poll conducted a week after the attacks shows ‘remain’  reaching the majority at 52%, whilst ‘leave’ dropping to 48%. (The independent)

Now that the initial hysteria has elapsed, we see how the terrorist attacks might have actually enhanced a sense of solidarity towards the rest of Europe. The most recent polls demonstrate a rebalancing of opinions, and Britons are now split 50/50 over leaving the Union. Professor Simon Hix from the London School of Economics encourages us to take a positive perspective on the EU’s future. In an interview, he has claimed that the short-term effect of the terrorist attacks would inevitably swing voters against the EU. However, in the long-term, we should look at how these attacks have given birth to a sense of Anglo-French solidarity. We know the French and the British are historical rivals, but the Paris attacks were mourned to such an extent that this rivalry seems to have been forgotten. Trafalgar Square was flooded with people showing support for Paris twice this year. We can also see the support for France in more mundane scenes, for example in the fact that Premier League games were commenced with the Marselleise for weeks, and by a wave of red white and blue colours in social media.

Moreover, Professor Hix highlights the crucial difference between what the public wants and perceives against what is the rational choice in terms of security. To enhance security, it makes no sense to leave the EU. This can be seen by the fact that even Theresa May, one of the most Eurosceptic member of Parliament, pushed for joining the Pan European database following the attacks.

The public is very divided on the effect of the EU membership on the national security, and a poll taken during the week of the Paris attacks shows that 39% feel that EU membership makes Britain stronger, 26% think that it weakens Britain’s security, and 23% thinks it makes no difference.

This implies that many voters see the security benefits a EU membership includes. However, the poll also demonstrates there is a large portion of pivotal voters, which could be heavily influenced by exogenous shocks.

This bring us to the conclusion that if during 2016 the European Union will demonstrate its ability to take coordinated action against terrorism, Britons will be reassured that a tight interconnection between European nations is beneficial for security.

The situation is very delicate though, because another terrorist attacks so close to the British border might be the last straw to swing public opinion, and will be used as precious political capital by the UK to leave campaigning groups.


Picture: http://www.voxeurop.eu/de/content/article/3977671-euroskeptiker-zwischen-allen-stuehlen

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