On Greek holiday beaches and in remote but pretty French villages this summer British visitors have faced similar questions from anxious fellow citizens of the European Union. A month ago it was: “Your referendum, it will be OK, yes?” But a run of opinion polls showing the campaign to leave ahead of opponents who want to stay in by up to 10%, has forced a change of tone as the 23 June ballot looms. The more reproachful version has become: “Why are you doing this to us?” Washington’s Capitol Hill legend, Tip O’Neill, once said “all politics is local”. True enough, but rarely the whole truth. The campaign for Brexit – British exit – feeds on decades-old, homegrown resentments. Real or imagined, they include nostalgia for imperial certainties and for pre-globalised jobs for life, plus resentment of immigrants and of rules imposed by “unelected” courts and commissions in Brussels. Such are the demons said to restrain national “sovereignty” or (for some) free market spirits. “ Take back control” is Brexit’s catch-all slogan, designed to appeal to both social isolationists and blue-water buccaneers. Does that sound familiar? It may well do to jobless Portuguese teenagers, unemployed blue-collar workers in the American Rust Belt and hedge fund managers chafing at “over-regulation”. The visitor to Greece or rural France tries to tell questioners: “It’s bit like Syriza or Golden Dawn,” rival populist insurgencies challenging the status quo in Athens. Or “it’s a bit like your Marine Le Pen or America’s Trump. A lot of people are angry. Some have much to be cross about.”
Industrial unrest amid persistent economic malaise in Europe, the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks have all contributed to a deep and urgent sense of foreboding across the continent. Unseasonal floods and storms have reinforced it. So did the senseless murder of Jo Cox, a popular British MP, in her Yorkshire constituency this week, days after a police officer and his wife were slaughtered in a Paris suburb. And what about that aggressively nationalistic and authoritarian government recently elected in Poland, what does that mean for EU unity?
So the basic reason why British voters may be about to “do it” to their neighbours and sever an uneasy 43-year relationship with the 28-nation European Union (EU) of 500 million citizens is because they are fed up and can show it. Like a ballot proposition in California or one of Switzerland’s frequent referendums (Swiss recently rejected a basic minimum income for all adults), 23 June gives frustrated voters a chance to kick the government, more broadly to kick political elites who are judged to have let them down.