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Misplaced British nostalgia

Head shot of a man (Volker Wagener) with gray hair and a beard
Volker Wagener
June 27, 2016

Why do Britons not want to belong to the European Union any more? Three days after the Brexit referendum, DW's Volker Wagener is annoyed.

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Image: Getty Images/C. Furlong

Cricket really could explain it all: Whoever developed such a strange game must just be wired differently.

Why do Britons not want to belong to the European Union anymore? They never really got all that into the European Union, but now they really are out of it. That was and is foolhardy - for the EU and for Britons.

It is the over-50 generation that is responsible for Brexit. Older people voted with a feeling of the old Great Britain in mind, with a desire to set their country apart from the rest of the European Union.

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
DW's Volker Wagener

Such feelings belong in a museum: British industry has been on suffering since 1945. The former manufacturing locomotive of Europe hardly produces anything anymore.

The United Kingdom's days as a foreign policy power have also long since past. Older voters know this, but fancifully went ahead and voted for their former glory anyway. Statistics have shown that younger voters thought differently - especially the better-educated or more internationally oriented youth. And yet they'll have to spend their lives sleeping in the bed their parents and grandparents made for them.

A divided kingdom

Not only is intergenerational peace endangered - there is a growing urban-rural divide, as well. Residents of London voted to maintain the bond with the European Union; a majority of voters in the north of England elected to turn their backs on the EU. Even more dramatically, the referendum has sharpened the contrasts within the United Kingdom: Scotland and Northern Ireland intend to stay in the European Union, with or without England and Wales. Has there been such a politically and socially explosive event in Great Britain's recent history? And why did the referendum require a simple majority rather than, say, two-thirds approval for legitimacy?

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson would have been held back by such a rule. Some voters were taken in by his act, in which he plays himself off not as an elite Tory but as a nonconformist with faux bedhead.

When Johnson bikes through the city of London, the act is first and foremost a meeting with the yellow press, who are witnesses to his environmental awareness or his modesty. The journalists get great photos, and he grabs the headlines. It's likely that he was not even really a Brexiter at heart, but he has connected his own political ascension to the question that will shape Britain's destiny. Now that he got what he campaigned for, does he want to face the consequences? He hasn't thrown a public victory party. Is this a sign that those who only wanted to blow a bit of hot air are now afraid of the storm they've brewed?

Infografik Wie Großbritannien gewählt hat Englisch

Mobilizing fear

The referendum was not a struggle against the bureaucracy in Brussels - that criticism is as old as the European Union - but against the freedom of movement for laborers within the EU. It is hard to believe that the Polish, Lithuanian and Hungarian workers Brexit voters are so terrified of will now head back to the continent. They paid taxes and put money toward pensions, but that did not make a difference to voters.

EU opponents won by mobilizing fear. The youth who support the European Union could not have imagined it.

Now, the European Union has to show its teeth to keep other countries in. Even the Central and East European nations that so desired to join just over a decade ago have begun to complain of a loss of sovereignty. Yet they all want a piece of the pie when it comes to development and subsidies. As intoxicating as the desire may be to be master of one's domain, as some Brits had sought last week, it is a dangerous self-delusion.

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Head shot of a man (Volker Wagener) with gray hair and a beard
Volker Wagener Writer for DW's Programs for Europe department