Brexit and movements for peace and justice

IssueApril - May 2016
Feature by Natalie Shanklin

How could the 23 June referendum on whether or not the UK will remain in the European Union impact issues regarding peace in Europe? It is not likely that peace movements and coalitions for peace would be severely undermined by the UK leaving the EU, but a Brexit decision could affect foreign policy, efforts for nuclear disarmament, the arms trade, and immigrants’ rights.

Foreign policy

The European Union sees itself as originating as a peace project, created to foster economic co-operation between European nations, with the belief that countries that trade together are less likely to go to war with each other. The UK has already received warnings about leaving the EU from countries such as France, with tensions heightening in regard to the referendum.

Andrew Lane, the Quaker representative to the European Union and Council of Europe, said these tensions would likely increase the UK were to leave.

‘Leaving the EU would not mean a return to war, but it undermines the primary mechanism the UK uses to work with its neighbours,’ Lane said. ‘It will make it more difficult to find shared solutions to problems. The EU provides for the free movement of people and goods, and in doing so builds bridges across borders, nations and languages. Europeans know each other better because of the EU, and are less susceptible to lies promoted by xenophobia and nationalism.’

Not only would a Brexit decision have the potential to create political and diplomatic chasms between European nations, it would likely weaken the international presence of the EU as a whole.

Paul Lansu, senior policy adviser at Pax Christi International, said that with several issues causing an upset within Europe, a Brexit decision would internationally weaken the EU even further.

‘We see a very strong spiral in the negative sense of the European Union and the impact of the European Union is decreasing, and that has to do with different reasons,’ Lansu said. ‘We had the Eurozone crisis, in which Greece played an important role. We of course have the migration and the refugee crisis, which divides a lot of people in the European Union, in each country, in each political party, in each family. We have division of all these issues, and that is weakening the unity and the capacity of the European Union as such.’

Lansu also said he sees a growing tendency towards stronger senses of nationalism, which are harming the overall peace process in Europe, and the UK’s nationalist desire to leave the EU could hurt foreign policy of both the UK and the EU as a whole.

‘It is more of a nationalism based on “our people first”, a more Eurosceptic direction, and so these are tendencies which are not very positive,’ he said. ‘I think it would weaken the foreign policy of the European Union, when you have the United Kingdom leaving the European Union... so I think it is not wise to take that step.’


With foreign policy weakened as a result of Brexit, military policy would also be destabilised, which includes current efforts for disarmament and ending the arms trade. Several European nations are ready to modernise their technical arsenals, including the UK with its Trident nuclear weapons system, making it a necessity that campaigns against this do not lose momentum.

Peace groups in the UK are some of the largest and best-funded in Europe. For instance, the Campaign Against Arms Trade is the most active and well-resourced member in the European Network Against the Arms Trade. Therefore, activism for disarmament in Europe will require the continued bonds between UK coalitions and other organisations in Europe, no matter what the referendum decides.

‘The contribution of UK peace groups in collective action by European groups is very important,’ Lane said. ‘If the UK leaves, it will be important for British peace groups to be active at the European level. Arms companies are increasingly lobbying EU governments, and we are seeing the proliferation of weapons, such as armed drones, as a result.’


Meanwhile, hundreds and thousands of Syrian refugees and civilians from other terrorised nations are pouring into Europe. There has been much debate over how many refugees each EU nation should take in, and the situation has required much co-operation among member countries.

If Britain decides to leave the EU, it is unclear what might happen in regard to the refugees, especially as more and more nations are closing their borders, Lansu said.

‘This is a total contradiction with the project of the European Union, because the project is an open space for the freedom of movement, freedom of speech, strengthening democracy, strengthening human rights, etc,’ Lansu said. ‘So we see, in fact, the opposite growing – that is creating borders with the different states, and of course that is not good for the people involved, the migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.’

Campaigners for Brexit have advocated for Britain to regain full control of its borders and to reduce immigration, leaving the EU with even more limited resources to accommodate the refugees.

‘They are in serious troubles,’ Lansu said. ‘We’re talking about thousands of people, and I think that the generosity of the European people is at stake. I think the issue of solidarity is at stake.’


As mentioned before, the initial purpose of the EU is said to have been to promote peace. Today, neighbouring countries that wish to become a part of the EU’s common market are required to adopt the EU standards for democracy and human rights. However, if Britain were to leave, it’s possible that these efforts for peace will be weakened.

‘This is obvious in the Western Balkans, in countries like Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia who are reforming and building peace because of EU requirements,’ Lane said. ‘This does not change immediately should the UK leave, but it weakens the EU positive momentum and appeal.’

Additionally, EU member nations collaborate on a number of initiatives developed to prevent conflict and promote peace and mediation. One such effort includes the EU Monitoring Mission of unarmed civilians, which has patrolled the disputed border between the breakaway republic of South Ossetia and Georgia, helping to develop a bond of trust between conflicted communities. EU initiatives in Africa and the Middle East try to reform police forces and advocate for gender equality. The UK currently contributes to all of these activities.

If the UK were to leave the EU, it would not put an end to these activities, but it could possibly undermine the strength behind such movements.

Northern Ireland

Perhaps the region of Europe that may be most susceptible to the negative impacts of a Brexit decision is a bit closer to home.

Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998 which attempted to end 30 years of conflict, the peace process in Northern Ireland has received extensive support and funding from the EU, with Ireland and the UK cooperating through the EU to advance peace projects and economic development. In 2014, the EU agreed the fourth stage of a special cross-border programme for northern Ireland (Peace IV) with an appropriation of about €269 million until 2020.

According to the BBC, Peter Mandelson, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said the EU had been central to the peace process and ‘an enabler of peace in Northern Ireland’. He also said that if Britain were to exit the EU, it would prompt the development of new Irish border controls, which would undermine the accomplishments of the peace process there, as well as put 50,000 jobs in Northern Ireland in danger.

Not only would stricter border controls have an impact on trade, tourism and cross-border workers, it would influence the mindset and sense of peace in the region. Brexit would likely heighten tensions, undoing some of the work that the EU was able to achieve during the UK’s membership.

Dr Lee McGowan, a senior lecturer in European Studies at Queen’s University in Belfast and commissioning fund recipient for the research project ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’, published an article about these issues in the Telegraph.

He wrote: ‘In the event of a Brexit, such cross-border institutions would find it somewhat more difficult to work across the border and the sustainability of other existing EU programmes would need to be revisited,’ adding that the effects of a Brexit on Northern Ireland should be considered in the UK government’s consideration of the EU referendum.


No matter what the outcome of the EU referendum is, however, one thing is certain: that peace organisations and movements throughout Europe need to maintain their collaborative efforts. With UK peace groups playing a large part in the overall activist movement for peace in Europe and the world, the contributions of these groups cannot subside as a result of a Brexit decision.

Lansu said these collaborative efforts are key and that he does not predict they will be negatively affected if the UK were to leave the EU.

‘I don’t see the results coming from Brexit that other organisations in Europe will be affected,’ he said. ‘It is not going well with civil society, and with the peace movement in Europe as such, we are much too weak. The question is how to become stronger. Here in Brussels we do have other coalitions like EPLO [European Peacebuilding Liaison Office], in which several UK colleagues are active.We are doing, within the context of EPLO, a lot of lobbying on the European Union for peace-building, not only in the European context, but also in the neighbourhood and worldwide, and I think that collaboration will continue, of course.’

Topics: Europe