The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona look at how EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU feel about major events such as the Jubilee, the Commonwealth Games and Eurovision, exploring how perceptions have changed in the context of Brexit.

On 26 April, King Charles and Queen Camilla pressed the big red button to unveil the stage for Eurovision 2023. But what do a song contest known for its kitsch appeal and the coronation have in common?

As part of our research for the project ‘Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit’ we have examined how EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU understand Britain and their place within it. Over the past year we’ve been tracking the ongoing impact of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic on future migration plans, understandings of citizenship and sense of belonging. This involved a 400-strong panel who were asked both multiple choice and more open questions related to our research.

Through a focus on the Jubilee and the Commonwealth Games we were able to explore how the respondents understood Britain and Britishness after Brexit and the extent to which they felt represented by these and other major cultural and sporting events.

Major cultural and sporting events play a significant role in fostering a sense of community, identity and belonging. From the Jubilee and coronation to the Commonwealth Games, Eurovision, and international football tournaments, mega-events create a sense of common purpose around a set of common values and, in the case of international competitions, foes. This is particularly salient for the UK today as it emerges from the highly divisive experience of the EU referendum, the collective ordeal of Covid-19 and the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Such events create their own ‘imagined communities’, projecting, for a limited time, a shared sense of identity and belonging.

Taking place a week apart, the coronation and Eurovision diverge in their geographical points of reference – the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and Europe, respectively – and are assumed to appeal to particular and different communities. Looking at these events side by side offers insights into the contours of post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’. In the context of Brexit and the changing relationship between the UK and EU, we might ask who these events are meaningful for? And what can this tell us about Britain and Britishness after Brexit?

When we look at who is surveyed for their views and opinions about the British monarchy, an often not clearly defined ‘British public’ is frequently invoked. Yet, missing from these polls are Britain’s overseas citizens in its former colonial territories and its globally dispersed emigrant population.

It is also unclear whether this is a public constituted only of British citizens or whether it extends also to the UK’s migrant populations, EU citizens included. Our panel with EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU, which asked about the monarchy, fills in some of these gaps.

A key finding was that Brexit had a marked influence on how they thought about the monarchy and the Commonwealth, understood as symbols of national identity. We found a range of views about the future of the monarchy. When respondents offered more detail to support their reflections, many connected their feelings about the Jubilee – which we focused on in our research – to Brexit.

Chart showing relevance of the British monarchy to contemporary Britain and Britishness among British citizens in the EU and EU/EEA citizens in the UK.

Where those taking part in the research often presented the monarchy as an outdated, quaint tradition, perhaps a source of revenue from tourism, they described how the Jubilee celebrations had signalled to them that the British state was out of touch with its subjects on economic, social and cultural issues. Their responses collectively reported that they felt disregarded by a nation in the process of redefining itself and its position on the world stage after Brexit. EU citizens taking part were marginally more critical than British citizens in the EU in their responses.

Events designed to bring people together for some ended up reinforcing their sense of exclusion or second-class citizenship.

Asking about the Commonwealth Games and its tagline of inclusivity revealed that for many people, and despite its rebranding, the Commonwealth was a reminder of Britain’s imperial past. Their responses highlighted the contradictions as they perceived them between an event that was branded as ‘a colourful celebration of humanity’ and the government’s approach to migration, including the Rwanda deportation scheme and Windrush deportation scandal.

Furthermore, it was clear that the vast majority of those taking part in the panel felt no or limited attachment to the Commonwealth and were sceptical about whether it could hold significance for the UK after Brexit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a greater percentage of British citizens taking part reported that they felt moderately or very attached to the Commonwealth, even though they remained in a minority.

Chart showing level of emotional attachment to the Commonwealth among British citizens in the EU and EU/EEA citizens in the UK.

The feelings of both British citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK towards these events highlight a considerable degree of ambivalence towards the understandings of Britain and Britishness that the Jubilee and the Commonwealth Games symbolise to them.

But what events did they feel most represented by? And here’s where Eurovision is relevant. British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK showed a strong attachment to the song competition, and this attachment has grown stronger due to Brexit. They see Eurovision as embodying what they view as core European values, including peace, cooperation, inclusion and respect for difference. What this makes visible, as we have highlighted elsewhere, is a persistent attachment to the idea and values of being European.

2022 events British citizens in the EU and EU/EEA citizens in the UK feel most represented by or invested in.

People may align themselves with different events, and the identities and communities associated with them. But for those taking part in our research, it’s clear that Brexit has shaped both how they interpret significant events, and the extent to which they feel represented by them.

By Michaela Benson, Professor in Public Sociology, University of Lancaster, and Nando Sigona, Professor of International Migration and Forced Displacement, University of Birmingham. 

The new season of the ‘Who do you think we are?’ podcast with Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona foregrounds a new understanding of Britain’s migration story focused on ‘Global Britain’, considering how migration governance has changed since Brexit and its impact on both migrants and citizens.

Follow the podcast on all major podcasting platforms or through our RSS Feed. Get all the latest updates from the MIGZEN research project  on Twitter and Instagram.


Who’s watching local government?

Attitudes towards migration for work remain positive

Kicking the can down the road? The continued precarity of EU pre-settled status

Without the Brexit glue, support for the Conservative Party is coming unstuck

The French elections of 2022: Macron’s half victory in a changing political landscape

Recent Articles