Did EU regional spending affect the Brexit referendum?

A couple of weeks ago my article ‘Did EU regional spending affect the Brexit referendum?’ was published in Regional Studies, Regional Science. Thanks to a scheme by the Regional Studies Association to support early career researchers with publishing, the article is open access and free to read!

The article is a short presentation of a piece of analysis I undertook did last summer. Much commentary following the EU referendum result was quick to point out how areas which had traditionally been supported by EU regional funding, such as Cornwall, the South Wales Valleys and Northern England, had voted to leave. Was it really possible that areas which had received significant levels of EU investment had decided to vote to leave? The article sought to open up this question by examining the relationship (if any) between the level of EU investment in local areas and how those areas voted in the EU referendum.

While telling us something about the referendum result, this question holds wider significance beyond Brexit. Regional policy spending accounts for a third of the EU’s total budget. In the context of proposals being put forward for the EU’s post-2020 budget multiannual financial framework, the effectiveness of cohesion policy spending has unsurprisingly come under increased scrutiny.

Did the level of EU regional spending affect how local areas voted in the referendum?

The short answer is ‘not really’.

The analysis did point to the presence of a positive relationship between the level of EU spending and the level of remain vote in local areas, but overall the effect was minimal to have any meaningful impact on the result. Overall, the level of EU regional funding had a negligible effect on the result in those local areas at best.

Why was this the case?

One potential answer is awareness. Earlier research has suggested the ability of EU regional spending to affect support for the EU is conditional on the level of awareness of that spending and channels of communication. In the UK, awareness of regional policy spending has been consistently low.

Before the referendum, in 2015, the UK had the lowest levels of awareness of regional spending in the EU. Ironically, the referendum may have boosted levels of awareness, given two years later in 2017 there was a marked increase, albeit the overall level of awareness remains low.

And wider research on EU regional policy and support for the EU stresses that the relationship between the two is not always simple, often being affected by a range of other factors, such as European identity, political awareness or the perceived fit of spending to address local economic need.

So what?

So, what are the implications of this? From the EU’s perspective it raises questions over the efficacy of regional spending to increase EU support. While fostering support for the EU is not an explicitly stated objective, regional policy does aim to foster a sense of solidarity. If the intention is to somehow ‘connect’ citizens with Europe then simply spending money in local areas isn’t going to do the job, especially when big debates around EU membership come up. This is why research projects like Cohesify and Perceive, which aim to understand EU regional policy from the perspective of citizens and shed light on what citizens think about EU-funded projects, are important.

But there are also lessons for the UK. After the Brexit vote, the availability of regional funding to support local projects was one of the chief concerns for local government (here’s what I wrote about that earlier in the year). While the UK government has since promised to underwrite EU funded projects until 2020 (so long as they were approved up to the point of EU withdrawal), there remains uncertainty about what support will be available beyond Brexit. During the 2017 general election the Conservative Party Manifesto committed to setting up a ‘shared prosperity fund’, but there has been little substantive development on this since.

Brexit was of course about much more than the question of EU funding. But if one of the key lessons to come away from this is that regional disparities need to be tackled, then careful consideration needs to go into how this will work on the ground. Merely increasing the level of money places receive isn’t likely to address citizens’ concerns.