How Trump and Brexit united Europe

Europeans across the English Channel are nervously watching Britain’s debate over Brexit, fearful of what the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union will mean for their decades-old economic and political bloc.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Dec. 11 delayed a parliamentary vote on her Brexit plan, saying it would not pass. So Britain’s withdrawal from the EU remains a work in progress, two years after Britons in June 2016 voted to sever economic and political ties.

Back then, many EU observers feared other countries to follow Britain’s lead and exit the European Union, weakening the bloc to the point of collapse. And while the financial consequences of Brexit – whenever it happens – will surely be felt across the continent, popular support for the European Union may be more resilient than it once seemed.

How Brexit united Europe

New research shows that the 2016 Brexit vote actually had a positive effect on European integration, boosting the EU’s popularity. Paradoxically, so did the election of Donald Trump as United States president, our polling analysis shows.

Both cataclysmic events were widely expected to increase political divisions within Europe by empowering the EU’s nationalist critics.

Trump, seen here at the 2017 NATO summit, has clashed repeatedly with his European counterparts. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Instead, after Brexit, Europeans’ feelings toward the EU became more favorable, surveys from the Pew Research Center, Bertelsmann Foundation and the European Commission show.

According to the European Commission’s Eurobarometer surveys, for example, only 32 percent of Europeans in autumn 2015 said they “trusted” the EU. One year later, after the Brexit referendum, the number had increased by 4 percentage points. Six months after that, fully 42 percent of Europeans said they trusted the EU.

The other two sets of surveys showed similarly positive effects of Brexit on EU support.

Catherine De Vries, author of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s study, believes that the the EU’s increased popularity may be a rational response to the perceived economic and political costs of exiting the union.

Recent figures suggest that Britain’s gross domestic product may shrink by up to 4 percent over the next 15 years, which would result in job loss across the U.K.

The U.K. will also lose any say in EU political affairs – decisions that will nonetheless effect the country because Britain remains part of Europe even if it’s not an EU member. How to secure Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland, for example, is now a subject of testy negotiation.

The Trump effect

Trump’s unexpected electoral victory had a similarly positive impact on EU support, our new study of polling data from the continent reveals.

Comparing a Eurobarometer survey conducted in all EU member states in the four days leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and again during the six days after it, we found that Europeans felt better about the EU after Trump’s election.

More than 27,000 people across 28 countries were asked whether and how strongly they agreed with the idea that “the EU is modern,” “the EU is efficient,” “the EU creates jobs” and other similar statements.