The Complex Geography of the Brexit Vote

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The United Kingdom voted Thursday in favor of leaving the European Union in its controversial Brexit referendum. Breaking the vote down to its core motivation is not simple, and its explanation is of course influenced by the ideology of ­- and media sources used by -­ any particular person who may be asked about it. But the factors that stand out are all deeply geographical. These include nationalist desires and pushbacks against internationalist involvement, global trade, migrant politics, and xenophobia ­ issues that are inherently spatial or rooted in major discussions of human geography.

The two most commonly cited causes of the UK backing out of the EU are the burden of regulations, perhaps most significantly those related to trade, and the influx of migrants from other EU states that cannot be denied entry. For these reasons, the Brexit vote has been compared to the rise of Trump in America in countless articles written this month. However, the growing Britain First movement certainly does echo Trump supporters, and the Brexit vote is in many ways similar to building a wall at the Mexican border. These social movements are often written off as caused by racism, but the frustrations that lead to nationalist conservatism are more complicated. One step further, debates are conducted to determine whether they are caused by xenophobia and fear of immigration or economic issues. But as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, economic woes can accelerate resistances to immigration and discourse should not be limited to evaluated these factors separately when they are interwoven. As Branko Milanovic, an author and scholar of wealth inequality and globalization, said in a post on his blog last year, “The rich favor the continuation of globalization as it is, the lower middle classes are looking at the ways to change or reverse both globalization and migration that comes with it.”

Although the vote is not at this point sure to result in the UK leaving the European Union, speculation on how it will unfold has begun. An article in the Intercept by Robert Mackey effectively touches on many such outcomes. He reports that Scotland may seek independence in order to remain in the EU, Northern Ireland may push to unite with Ireland, and nationalist movement leaders in France and the Netherlands have praised the vote and called for their own countries to leave the Union.

Nationalist movements have dominated the headlines in 2016. Halfway through the year, the Brexit vote reveals they are not to be scoffed at. With the United States Presidential Election coming later this year, the world will see how serious these ideologies truly are.

Map of the United Kingdom showing the voting areas for the European Union membership referendum, 2016.  Map authors: Mirrorme22, Nilfanion, TUBS, and Sting, Wikipedia.

Map of the United Kingdom showing the voting areas for the European Union membership referendum, 2016. Map authors: Mirrorme22, Nilfanion, TUBS, and Sting, Wikipedia.