Embedded in Brexit An Inside Look at the Anti-EU Movement

The Brexit movement tends to not be particularly open with journalists, so I joined them for a few weeks to get an inside look. What I found was a lot of enthusiasm and some cause for concern in the run-up to the June 23 vote.


Life as a euroskeptic isn't that bad. I tried it myself. You spend a lot of time in the fresh air, you meet a lot of new friends and brothers-in-arms and you get to take part in an anti-establishment rebellion. Some of my new friends have even called the effort to split off from the European Union a freedom fight. I call it Great Britain's biggest propaganda battle in decades.

An astonishing movement has developed ahead of the June 23 EU referendum -- from the right to the left, from Tories to Labor to non-voters, from blue-collar workers to hedge fund managers. The EU opponents are known as Brexiteers. They pass out flyers in city centers, hold podium discussions and write op-eds for the newspapers. Some of them have been working for years to get Britain out of the EU, while others only just joined the movement a short time ago. Most emphasize that they value the Continent, as a vacation destination, but they don't want to be governed from there.

I joined the Brexit movement as an activist, even though SPIEGEL reporters generally aren't allowed to go undercover and some colleagues were skeptical. But the strategists behind the largest anti-EU initiatives only allow journalists limited insight into their campaigns. Furthermore, I hoped that being on the inside might help me understand that which seems incomprehensible from the outside: The fact that a country wants to turn its back on Europe during one of the most intense crises in decades. Finally, I was curious how it would feel on the other side.

I have long been a euphoric European. For me, Europe wasn't just an idea from Brussels or a political project; it was both reality and a sanctuary at the same time. When I was 17, a friend of mine and I traveled on Interrail tickets from the Ruhr Valley to England, Ireland, France and Spain -- and we simply couldn't get enough of this Continent. Europe was the antithesis of a provincial backwater. It was an expansion of our horizons and an opportunity to leave dull Germany far behind and transcend frontiers.

A lot has happened since then. Europe is fraying into nation-states, the fences are returning and Greece still stands at the edge of the abyss. The euphoria has evaporated and now, when I think about the Continent, I do so with a feeling of melancholy and decline. I am afraid that Britain could loosen a few bricks and the entire European structure could come crashing down. The British, after all, may be the greatest skeptics, but they are far from the only ones. What is happening on the island could soon happen elsewhere as well. That was the fourth reason for joining the Brexit movement: To take a closer look at the worst-case scenario.

Organizing the Troops

My service as a Brexiteer begins in an office building at Lambeth Bridge, across from the Palace of Westminster. It is the middle of February and Prime Minister David Cameron has just flown back to London from Brussels and, stands at a podium in front of 10 Downing Street, explaining the "deal" he has reached with the rest of the EU member states. Included in the agreement is Great Britain's exemption from the formulation "ever closer union," that the power of euro-zone member states will be limited outside of the common currency zone and that EU immigrants will not be allowed social benefits for up to four years. Cameron is hopeful that the deal will convince his countrymen to remain in the European Union.

On the very next day, a Sunday, the Vote Leave initiative starts a telephone campaign and the battle against Europe escalates. My job is to collect supporters in opposition to Cameron. Among Vote Leave's supporters are several politicians belonging to the country's largest parties, including Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove and former London Mayor Boris Johnson.

When I walk through a glass door on the building's seventh floor, John stretches out his hands as though I were his long lost brother. "Had breakfast already? Tea, coffee, croissants, fruit?" John heads up the Vote Leave call center. Inside the room are long tables covered with two- to three-dozen computer screens. The Thames can be seen out the window. The organization's leaders have their offices next door, including the lobbyist Matthew Elliott, who coordinates Vote Leave initiatives around the country. It is here that the movement develops its strategies and organizes the troops. Ten volunteers, almost all of them in their late twenties or early thirties, have shown up on this morning. John assigns me a monitor and says that our first task is to call Tory city councilmen across the country to ask if they are interested in helping Vote Leave.

Back in 2013, Matthew Elliott began the process of making contacts, finding rich donors and uniting the country's euroskeptic elite in organizations like Business for Britain. Some of those Elliott brought together have been waiting for the referendum for years. He poured the movement's foundation.

Now, it is time to organize town councilors along with small-business leaders and other sympathizers. The mood in the room is relaxed and nobody seems particularly surprised that a German is interested in helping out the Brexit camp. Next to me sits Harry, who is just as vehemently opposed to the EU as everyone else here. Harry says that he is most bothered by people who complain to him about Europe but who then say they aren't sure how they are going to vote in June.

Money, Chocolate or Flowers

I pick up the phone. The text that I am to recite appears on the screen: "Good morning, I am calling from Vote Leave, the campaign for Britain to leave the EU. The prime minister just returned with a deal from Brussels. But we don't believe that he has achieved the fundamental reforms that this country needs." The telephone computer connects me with Kent, South Wales, Somerset -- with 40 or 50 places. Every few seconds, someone in the room calls out: "Fantastic!" The message is that everything is going well -- that Cameron may have a deal, but it's not worth the paper it's printed on.

I am surprised that some of the town councilors I reach on this morning haven't yet made up their minds. A Tory from southern England, a member of the euroskeptic campaign Conservatives for Britain, says that he is favor of the EU. Before I can ask him why, then, he is involved with the skeptics, he ends the call. Another asks me what I'll offer him to vote for Brexit: Money, chocolate, flowers?

Harry is also having difficulties. "You're still undecided? Somehow everyone is saying that at the moment." While I can only see a tiny slice of the national mood on this morning, there seems to be cause for optimism for a European such as myself. That is the first surprise. What if the majority of the British can come to terms with Europe?

After two hours, I'm exhausted. John says I can come back any time and that he's here every day. Good, I answer. Fantastic!

Brexit is fun: That is the second surprise. My companions seem strangely exuberant, as though they are on an emotional high. They are fighting a war of conviction and talk of freedom and independence -- which lends their words the additional pretense of moral legitimacy.

As with any political movement that seeks to topple the status quo, the anti-Europeans have to be louder than their opponents. They have to explain why it is worth it to leave the EU. My impression is that the Brexiteers are fighting a proxy war. Their enemy isn't Europe, but the powerful elite in London and Brussels. They feel as though they have been shoved aside and cheated; they feel overwhelmed by immigrants, globalization and the question as to when they actually lost their old England. Brussels is only a metaphor for their feeling of loss of control.

The Brexiteers see themselves as being part of a popular revolt against the establishment -- as part of a citizens' rebellion. This feeling is amplified by the fact that the pro-European campaign Britain Stronger in Europe is being funded by high finance: by Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and other banks. The anti-EU movement, by contrast, collects its money in the form of small contributions and from rich private doners.

Fixated on Money

It is March when the Brexit movement ignites the next stage and takes to the streets. On a cool Saturday morning I find myself in the pedestrian zone of Oxford and pull on a red T-shirt bearing the Vote Leave logo. Ten activists have assembled around a folding table -- including three women, which surprises me. Thus far, Brexit had seemed to be largely a masculine movement. James, the coordinator, says we should distribute brochures and ask passersby to approach the table, where they can add themselves to an address list.

There are two flyers. The first one says that Britain could build a new hospital every week for the amount of money the country contributes to the EU. On the second, it says: "There are 35 million potholes in Great Britain. But your money is being spent on bridges like this one in Greece." It is illustrated with a picture of the Rio-Antirrio Bridge on the Gulf of Corinth.

I have always been surprised by the degree to which euroskeptics are fixated on money. The net sum of £8.5 billion that Great Britain sent to Brussels last year is a significant sum, but it is only just over 1 percent of the country's entire budget.

Many people shake their heads when they see the flyers: Thanks, but no thanks. One older woman says that she was born in the 1930s and doesn't want to see Europe break apart again. A young woman says that her great-grandfather fought in World War I and her grandfather in World War II -- Europe stands for peace! I find their support for the EU encouraging: Oxford is more cosmopolitan than its surroundings. Later, I sit down in a café with David and Mark, who likewise helped distribute flyers. Mark is a 26-year-old anarchist who works at an emergency hotline, while David is in his late 50s, a Tory voter and the owner of a small real estate company. They have little in common aside from their fight for limited government, low taxes and a country that is subject to few outside influences.

The battle against the EU unites anarchists with entrepreneurs; it pairs defenders of democracy with those skeptical of state power; it brings critics of the state together with patriots. It is an alliance of the dissatisfied, a confederacy of people who have little and feel as though they have been left behind together with those who have a lot and want to hang on to it. They have in common a significant portion of schadenfreude. "Europe is shitting their pants about us leaving," says David. "One less country to pay for the French farmers."

The more time I spend among the Brexiteers, the more convincing their arguments begin to seem. By now, I'm almost beginning to believe myself that Brussels is full of corrupt imperialists who spend their days thinking of new strategies of repression. One of the favorite arguments advanced by Brexit supporters is that Britain's departure would send shockwaves across the Continent and force the EU to become more efficient. As such, rejecting Europe would be beneficial to all. It is tempting to believe them.

A Snotty Club

Great Britain was always a half-hearted member of the European club. They joined because of the free-trade zone, but the country always distrusted the federalist ambitions of the Brussels elite and of the founding states. Libertarianism has a long tradition on the island. The first Brexit initiative emerged in 1969, before Britain even joined the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU. Since then, dozens of groups, think tanks and networks have been nourishing euroskepticism, which is another reason why the Brexit movement was able to become so strong.

Simon Richards is traveling through the country on behalf of Better Off Out, a Brexit initiative that has been fighting against the EU for 10 years. It is mid-April and the intense third phase is underway. Richards is sitting in a train heading for Haywards Heath in southern England. For the last eight years, he has been head of the Freedom Association, a lobby organization to which Better Off Out belongs. He is a Brexit veteran who has spent much of his life fighting against Brussels. I tell him that I am a journalist from Germany.

He relates to me that his anarcho-capitalistic tendencies developed early and that, even during his school days, he used to protest against excessive state control and overly powerful labor unions. The real fight, though, began in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher was forced by her own party to resign. From Richard's perspective, it was a huge mistake that continues to have implications today. David Cameron, he says, took the Tories hostage and, together with his Eton friends, transformed the party into a snotty club that has no connection to the people. That, he says, is how UKIP came to be. In fact, the rise of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party has come thanks to both its use of xenophobic language as well as the fact that Cameron has maneuvered the Conservative Party toward the center.

The great thing about doing battle against Europe is that you can learn something new every day. For example that the EU is to blame for the war in Ukraine and is likewise to be blamed for the fact that Britain was unable to protect itself from recent floods. That, at least, is what it says on the flyers passed out by the local UKIP chapter in Haywards Heath.

Not only that, but I have also learned in the last few weeks that the EU plans to swallow up the British Isles and make them part of a super-state. The EU, say Brexiteers, increases the danger of terror attacks, makes British beef 36 percent more expensive and is making it possible for 76 million Turks to soon be allowed to come to Europe. If Britain decides to stay in the EU, says Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove, then "we're voting to be hostages locked in the back of the car."

Coming Out

In Haywards Heath, Richards is applauded enthusiastically for his anti-EU speech, with only a 95-year-old world war veteran daring to contradict him. Finally, I am asked what I, as a German, think of the Brexit debate. I say what I have been thinking the entire time: that it would be a catastrophe if Great Britain were to leave. It is my coming out. The British bring cosmopolitanism to Europe and also act as an antipode to France. We Germans, we Europeans, need you, I hear myself saying.

The room is filled with around 30 people, and they fall silent. Then, a woman hisses: "You just want our money."

It's probably pointless. They aren't likely going to be convinced of Europe by a million pounds. The Brexiteers' fight is bigger than the EU. They want to stop time because they are afraid of the future.

Should Europe break apart, it is here where the first cracks are visible -- in Haywards Heath, in the pedestrian zone of Oxford, at Lambeth Bridge. I was surprised by the vehemence and resolve with which the Brexit movement glorifies the retreat -- with which it glorifies isolation. At the same time, I also experienced significant resistance in those places where I campaigned for leaving the EU. My hope is that the Brexiteers will become quieter if Britain decides to stay in the EU on June 23.

The mood in Haywards Heath is buoyant. Then a speaker asks who in the crowd is in favor of Europe. Behind me, three hands are raised, including that of the war veteran. Only three.

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davmccorm 05/25/2016
1. EU Membership
The author writes an interesting article but clearly demonstrates he does not understand the mind of the UK population who wish to leave the EU. For most people on mainland Europe the EU is a political project concerned with closer intergration. Few people in the UK believe in this vision, even among people who wish to remain. People in the UK view the EU in economic terms and trade. We have no interest in a European army, foreign policy etc. There is great concern in the UK over a loss of sovereignty with more powers going to Brussels. Finally do not confuse a burning desire to leave the EU with Europe, we love Europe with its diverse cultures, I recently lived and worked in Germany for 4 years and loved the country, its culture and people. I shall however vote exit
jff.page 05/25/2016
2. The EU Has Changed For The Worse!
Initially it was fine to be a part of a club. But when the rules of the club keep changing and you begin to realise that things are considerably different then you sit back and think about what it was like in the first place. Taken overall the EU has gone in an entirely different direction to what was the original idea. The rules regarding free movement were meant for European citizens not for those that have barely been on the continent for 5 minutes to be given a passport and exactly the same rights as the rest of us. This attitude by the EU rulers is the biggest mistake in history and is leading to a break down of the whole system. Quite honestly, I think the EU parliament Building is very much like a lunatic asylum with no walls and no security, and the lunatics are free to do whatever they wish. Crazy!
idbeckett 05/25/2016
3. What does a 'Remain' vote mean.
We could happily argue for hours whether the EU is the future or a failed experiment that belongs in the past. But leaving that aside, let's all remember what the position is if we vote Remain. We will be a country outside the euro, Schengen, banking union, fiscal compact, most of the Justice and Home Affairs structure and much of the working time directive as well as receiving a budgetary rebate. Additionally we have a legal system fundamentally different in philosophy from the continent, use several non-metric measures (which the Commission has now accepted as the norm) and drive on the other side of the road. On top of all of that we will now be exempt from ever closer union, be allowed to have different rules on welfare for EU nationals and limit the ability of euro countries to exercise controls that impact on us. It is beginning to look as if even a vote to stay is actually a rejection of the EU as you seem to understand it. This is before you start talking of the UK refusal to take an active role in the plans for EU military / security services, common foreign policy etc. Also remember that any future surrender of UK authority to the EU now requires a referendum, the evidence is that there is absolutely no interest at all in moving towards closer integration. In other words the UK has progressed as far down the road as it intends to go. As you integrate we will be left behind and become ever more detached and problematic. A closing thought, your hope that a Remain vote will result in Brexiteers becoming quieter is I fear unrealistic, I can't say I have noticed the Scottish SNP becoming quieter after they lost the 2014 referendum, why would we be different?
ZenNovice 05/25/2016
4. Brexit
A compelling piece, and not unfair; and yet ... and yet ...
innes_mizner 05/25/2016
5. Differnt Trains
I too did the Interrail, albeit older than you and in the opposite direction. My Scottish friends and I had hoped to visit twenty nations, but partly due to a 44 degree heatwave we never made it to Yugoslavia. Our unoccpied accomodation in Sberonica wasn't there the next year. We spent most of our time in West Germany, which I hadn't been looking forward to as I didn't learn German at school but I found it surprisingly pleasant, although very strange. I remember the luxury of the house we stayed in, my friend's uncles house in Frankfurt. The whores on the streets there, and a dead junkie sitting covered in vomit and ants in the train station, with people pissing next to him as if he was invisible. A football up the spires of Kohln cathederal, just like the football up the spires of Coventry cathedral that we'd just passed, as if football had cancelled out war-crimes. Being robbed by a Turk the first hour of arriving. The wonder of the Albrecht Durher museum in Nuremberg and the surviving old town, having hiked there over a huge, scary, grass-covered concrete plaza from the war-era. I got on the wrong train in Munich and ended up travelling through East Germany by mistake. A whole different experience of Europe, still real and dystopian. A surreal industrial wasteland. The night I almost died in Dresden train station, where I saw a pitched battle between neo-nazis and Roma, which the armed police waited to end before dragging away the casualities. I've returned to Germany since, to work in the south for a foriegn firm. I've seen how it's changed and improved. There are a lot of things I liked about the new Germany. But it's German politicians that will be making me vote for Brexit, not these English idiots in the Brexit campaign. Your chancellor doesn't get to unilaterally reverse EU policy just because they've had a crisis of conscience. She doesn't get to make refugees and economic migrants traipse the length of Europe just to supply cheap labour, and she doesn't get to bribe an increasingly treacherous Turkey with travel visas just to placate them. I've been pro-EU all my life. I loathe Farage. I'm still voting Brexit because of Merkel and Erdogan. I am no longer convinced the EU is a protection against the Tories.
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