U.K. Votes For European Parliament, Even As Many Long For The Day Outside The EU

Listen Now

British voters are expected to deliver a humiliating defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party in European Parliament elections on Thursday. Many who want Britain to pull out of the European Union are angry with May, who is under heavy pressure to resign, for failing to deliver on the Brexit referendum result nearly three years ago.

Many Brexit voters are also angry with the EU. At political and campaign events across England, voters in their 50s and 60s often complain about the "bullies in Brussels," who they feel have strong-armed and disrespected the United Kingdom, which was once a global power and fought two wars on the Continent during the last century.

Peggy Reading, a Brexit voter in the county of Lincolnshire, could barely contain her rage. She recalled how Prime Minister May repeatedly returned to Brussels in recent months to ask fellow European leaders for help in getting her EU withdrawal agreement through her own country's Parliament.

"Absolute humiliation!" said Reading, as her voice cracked with emotion. "Three times now she's gone back and she's had to sit outside some door."

"Can you imagine somebody like Winston Churchill or Maggie Thatcher being told just sit outside in the corridor?" continued Reading, who teaches radio drama at a university about 140 miles north of London. Reading was referring to hard-nosed, iconic Conservative Party prime ministers who were also global leaders. "Yet, she does it, meekly. They're treating us like muck."

While most young people in the U.K. voted in the 2016 referendum to stay in the EU, where they saw opportunities for education and employment, most older voters like Reading wanted out. Among other things, they see a brighter future for Britain free from EU regulations.

May's failure to negotiate an EU exit deal that British lawmakers will accept enormously frustrates most Brexit voters. Because the U.K. is still inside the European Union, the country must hold an election for representatives to the EU's legislature, even though voters chose to leave the bloc in 2016. Reading sees all this as just more evidence of her nation's long slide since its victory in World War II.

"We were brought up by our parents to be proud of this country and we had won the war," said Reading, who spoke following a meeting last month of Leavers of Lincolnshire, a local chapter of the pro-Brexit community group Leavers of Britain. "We loved it. [Now] it's gone. It's gone."

Travel to other pro-Brexit areas of England and you'll hear older voters say similar things. Angela Lawrence, a writer, came out last month to Clacton-on-Sea on England's east coast for the newly formed Brexit Party, which is expected to win big when European election results come out Sunday.

The Brexit Party wants the U.K. to make a clean break with the EU as soon as possible and has vowed to smash Britain's traditional political structure, which is dominated by May's Conservatives and the Labour Party. Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party's leader, has used his seat in the European Parliament as a platform to bash the EU from within.

"This year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings when we rescued the Continent from the Nazis," said Lawrence, as she waited for Farage to address the crowd on Clacton Pier. "We mustn't forget what this country has done for Europe."

Lawrence said the EU shows no appreciation these days for the sacrifice the United Kingdom made to save Europe during World War II.

"We have laid down our life for the people of the Continent," she said, "and we deserve a little respect."

(In fact, many Europeans express gratitude for Britain's heroics in World War II and are somewhat baffled and saddened that the country is leaving the EU.)

A few voters even suggest that Germany, the largest EU economy, has driven a hard bargain on Brexit to subjugate the United Kingdom.

"My grandfather would've said, 'They couldn't beat us in the war, so they've come through the back door,' " said Angie Jinks, a gardener, who lives in the village of Werrington, about two hours east of Birmingham.

Simon Usherwood, who teaches politics at the University of Surrey, in southeastern England, says some older Brexit voters are anxious about Britain's standing in the world and miss the power the nation once wielded on the world stage. Usherwood paraphrases a famous quote by a former U.S. secretary of state.

"I think that old line of Dean Acheson of 'losing an empire and not yet finding a role,' applies now as much as it did back in the '40s and '50s," said Usherwood.

During the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexiteer politicians promised to "take back control" from Brussels, referring to the power to regulate immigration to the U.K., make laws and negotiate trade deals with other countries. The slogan, like "Make America Great Again," proved to be extremely effective and offered a return to what many Brexit voters saw as a better time.

"This is very much a populist way of thinking, that things used to be great, things will be great, but right now it's terrible," said Usherwood. "And you need me to put you back on track."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.