The gender story of Brexit: From under-representation of women to marginalisation of equality

Roberta Guerrina and Annick Masselot

The 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) represents a milestone in the history of the European Union (EU).When the British people were asked whether the UK should remain or leave the EU, they embarked on an unprecedented political process that has ramifications for the whole of Europe. The binary nature of the question posed in the referendum helped to oversimplify a complex relationship and opened new socio-political cleavages in the country. Technically the referendum was advisory and thus, not legally binding. The results pointed to a country divided: 51.9% of the votes were cast in favour of leaving the EU against 48.1%. But with a turnout of 72.2% the result provided strong political mandate to the government. Voting preferences highlighted significant cleavages based on class, educational background and age, with 71% of people aged between 18 and 24 voting to remain in the EU, compared with just 36% of people aged over 65. Differences also appeared in regional preferences: Northern Ireland (55.78%) and Scotland (62%) voted in favour of remaining in the EU. Although the data points towards a small gender gap, the nature and quality of public debates, both during the campaign and since the vote, have revealed an overarching blindness, and casual disregard, for gender and intersectional issues.

More than that, it has exposed gendered and racialised patterns underpinning citizens’ participation and engagement in the public sphere. Gender hierarchies permeated every aspect of this crisis,‘manufactured not only by a generic male-dominated British political elite but in this case quite literally by men who happen to have gone to the same elite schools and have been competing with each other since adolescence’ (Hozic and True 2016,276).This is not disconnected from the UK government’s position on international and external politics since the referendum. The ‘war cry’ used by Brexiters since the vote — ‘achieving the will of the people’ — helps to legitimise the downgrading of the concerns about the impact of Brexit on women and other traditionally marginal groups.

The socio-economic and political structures that are becoming established as a result of Brexit will affect EU politics and the relationship between European institutions and the member states for years to come. What is striking about Brexit, and the political economy that has emerged around it, is that it is largely one-dimensional. The reification of binaries at the heart of the debate, e.g. the left behinds vs the rights of migrants, has almost entirely omitted women’s interests from the discussion. This chapter explores the story of Brexit through a feminist lens.

It seeks to highlight how women’s interests, whether as a homogeneous or diverse group, have been sidelined and instrumentalised in the pursuit of a project that is imbued with masculine and nationalist undertones.

Gendering Brexit opens a space for an intersectional feminist agenda to expose silences and structures of power at the heart of both national and European institutions, as well as the very discipline that seeks to study those institutions (Guerrina et al. 2018). More broadly, this new body of work contributes to the feminist approaches about de-democratisation and disintegration as outlined by Lombardo and Kantola (2019). This chapter provides a synthesis of current debates and research on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Highlighting the omission of gender perspectives from the wider body of research and political economy that has emerged as a result of the 2016 EU referendum provides an entry point for the analysis of the process of evolution of the UK gender regime. This analytical frame helps to understand the links between austerity, Brexit and the growing anti-equality narratives so deeply entrenched in populist discourse.

As a way of context, gender equality is one of the oldest and most sophisticated fields of EU law and policy (Bell 2011; Guerrina and Murphy 2016; Prechal 2004). The EU has undeniably contributed dynamically to the advancement of gender equality in the member states. It is often highlighted as a successful and vigorous field of EU law and policy (Caracciolo di Torella and Masselot 2013), even if indicators — such as the EIGE Gender Equality Index (see Jacquot and Kriszan in this volume) — show that gender equality rights have not yet achieved their full potential ( The footprint ofEU law on the UK legal system is no exception as the impact of European law on the development of the national equality policies has clearly been traced by scholars (Annesley and Gains 2013). However, this relationship is not unidirectional. The UK has also helped to shape the development of EU gender equality provisions (Hantrais 2018) and the shape the European gender regime (Fagan et al. 2006; see also von Wahl in this volume). In particular, the UK’s bias in favour of deregulation has permeated into the negotiations, limiting the scope of key policy initiatives such as the 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive (Foubert and Imamovic 2015; Elomaki 2015; McGlynn 1996, 2000; see also Milner in this volume).

This emphasis is relevant as it relates to the EU’s focus on preventing social dumping and maintaining a level playing field. Indeed, Article 8 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) requires that ‘|i|n all its activities, the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women’ (see Guerrina 2005; Mergaert and Lombardo 2014; Pollack and Hafner-Burton 2000). Moreover, under Article 157(4) TFEU, the EU has a positive duty to achieve gender equality (Fredman 2005; McCrudden 2019). The EU’s negotiating team thus has a duty to ensure the process and outcomes do not disproportionally disadvantage women and safeguard the gender equality acquis. However, Brexit has not happened in a vacuum, but it unfolded in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis which had already relegated social cohesion and equality to second order issues (see Kantola and Lombardo in this volume). The key question in the context of the post-Brexit settlement is how much will key foundational principles come to bear on the outcome of the negotiations and, in so doing, shape the future of the equality agenda in the UK and Europe alike.

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