Brexit and the United Kingdom

The Brexit debate in the United Kingdom brought forth many dividing lines in British politics, many of which had been somewhat dormant or hidden (see Màdroane in this volume). Long-lasting suspicions of ill-willed bureaucrats in Brussels ran unfiltered through in the debate. Parts of the debate proved to be highly conspiratorial, for instance, those aspects related to fears of the Islamisation of Britain. One revolved around possible access of Turkey to the EU and, thus, of increased Muslim migration to the UK. While dismissing the fact that all EU members states hold a veto of new members, the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign still insisted that the UK would, in practice, not be able to stop the Turks from getting their hands on EU passports.

By the time of the Brexit vote, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) had surpassed the BNP (discussed previously) and firmly occupied the populist space in the country. Its leader, Nigel Farage, had become the primary voice of the UK’s anti-EU rhetoric. He forcefully maintained that 75 million poor Turks were on the verge of gaining access to the UK, ‘to use the Health Service, to use our primary schools, to take jobs in whatever sector it may be’ (Bennett, 2016). UKIP insisted that the Brexit vote was indeed a referendum on the massive migration of Muslims into the UK.

This was in the midst of the refugee crisis triggered by the war in Syria. Farage went on to argue that combatants of the terrorist organisation ISIS would filter through to the UK with Syrian refugees coming from Turkey (see Bergmann, 2020). The EU was cast as a traitor to the British people, facilitating an uncontrolled flow of Muslim migrants to the UK. Nigel Farage referred to them as ‘hordes of foreigners’ (Harrison, 2018). The discourse was highly xenophobic. Migrants were linked to loss of identity and the erosion of British culture.

In a speech promoting Farage’s message, a prominent Conservative Party member, Theresa Villiers, said: 'If people believe there is an immigration crisis today, how much more concerned will they be after free movement is given to Turkey’s 75 million citizens?’ (quoted in Bergmann, 2020). Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith similarly maintained that the EU had made it very clear that Turks ‘are going to get free travel and then enter the EU’. In a statement, the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign went on to state that the high birth rate in Turkey would lead to a million Muslim Turks coming to the UK within eight years (Bennett, 2016). A prominent ‘Vote Leave’ campaigner, Penny Mordaunt, said that a vote to remain in Europe was a ‘vote to allow people from Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey to move here freely when they join the EU soon’ (Lister, 2016).

Messages playing on these largely unfounded fears were actively built into the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign material. One of their posters, for example, depicted an open door to the UK with the written message: ‘Turkey (population of 76 million) is joining the EU’. Another poster listed countries set to join the EU, highlighting only Syria and Iraq on the map. Neither country was, though - of course - on any kind of route towards EU membership. Still, with the focus in the campaign shifting to imagined Turkish membership and invented increased Muslim migration into the UK, the polls started to move in the favour of Leave.

A third poster showed a photograph of a seemingly endless flow of refugees crossing through the Balkans, mostly young males. Its text read: ‘Breaking point - the EU has failed us all’. At the bottom, the message continued: ‘We must break free from the EU and take back control of our borders’. Collectively, this constitutes a systemic campaign of misinformation in regard to migration and misrepresentation of the workings of the European Union.

Communication studies have shown that coverage of Muslims in UK media is predominantly negative, especially in outlets supportive of the Conservative Party (Waterson, 2019, see Madroane in this volume). Accordingly, surveys showed that a majority ofTory members believed Islam was generally a threat to Western civilisation and a threat to the British way of life.

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