Activists with the E.U. flag and the Union Jack painted on their faces kiss in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate as a protest of the British referendum to leave the European Union. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Leave or Remain? The polls predict a close vote on June 23, when United Kingdom voters decide whether they will stay in the European Union. While most British politicians are against a British exit (Brexit), the public has long been divided over this question.

Would leaving the E.U. plunge Britain into a recession and diminish its role in European affairs? That’s what the “Remain” camp says. Those in favor of “Leave” argue Britain needs greater political and economic independence, especially in the area of immigration.

So why is a referendum on the U.K. national identity taking place during a major European soccer tournament? Good question.

Here in the Monkey Cage, Jamie Gruffydd-Jones pointed out last week that winning or losing in sports competitions can influence how people vote. Past research has found that sports victories improve people’s moods, making them more likely to favor the status quo. Losses have the opposite effect, increasing the chances that people will vote for change. By this logic, the fact that teams from England and Wales advanced this week should help the “Remain” camp.

Sports can incite nationalism

My take is slightly different. I believe that the Euro 2016 tournament will help the “Leave” campaign despite the success of England and Wales on the playing field. What makes this referendum different from most other votes is that the British voters are deciding between an international institution and their national sovereignty.

We like to think that international sports bring the world together in friendly competition, but there is substantial evidence to the contrary. In many cases, they actually harden national identities, which drives countries apart. The 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras is the most famous example, although there are many others.

Sports, it turns out, can reinforce national identities and increase tension between countries, regardless of the actual score. As George Orwell put it, “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world … you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches.”

Psychologists have studied how sports intensify rivalries, going back to the 1954 Robbers Cave experiment that pitted two teams of boys against each other in a series of challenges and measured the escalating conflict. My own research looks at how countries become more aggressive militarily when they participate in international soccer tournaments.

The polls tell the Brexit vote story

Here’s how Euro 2016 seems to be shaping U.K. support for the E.U. Before the opening kickoffs, nationalistic riots erupted on the streets of Nice, with English “football hooligans” at the center of the action. The clashes caused dozens of injuries and flooded the news with scenes of English fans fighting French police officers. If that was not enough to harden national identities, the June 11 opening game between England and Russia attracted 14.1 million British viewers, making it the country’s most-watched television event this year.

As the graph below shows, U.K. pollsters noticed a drastic change in voter attitudes toward the E.U. during this period. There was a large swing in favor of “Leave,” which maintained about an 8-point lead over much of last week. The momentum shifted back to “Remain” following the murder of pro-E.U. Member of Parliament Jo Cox and increasing concerns over the economic costs of a Brexit. However, “Leave” made up ground early this week. Going into Thursday’s vote, the Financial Times “Poll-of-Polls” gives “Leave” a narrow edge of 45 to 44.


The “Remain” vote appears to be receiving less support since the start of Euro 2016 matches. Data: Financial Times Brexit poll tracker, https://ig.ft.com/sites/brexit-polling/ Figure: Andrew Bertoli.

How will the games this week affect the vote? Whether Gruffydd-Jones or I am right, planning the referendum during the Euro 2016 seems like a big mistake. The timing made it possible for a sporting event to influence a crucial decision, either by affecting voter mood or increasing nationalism. In the future, politicians should be more alert to how emotions can influence voter choices, and plan accordingly.

Andrew Bertoli is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

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