Rational and Irrational Fears in the Brexit Debate

by Ira Straus

Chair, Centre for War-Peace Studies

30th July 2019

Rational and Irrational Fears in the Brexit Debate
Freud Papers, Part III

Note: These pages come from the Freud Papers. They were discovered on the desk of Sigismundis Freud by Ira Straus, who has leaked them to the Federal Trust. This is the third installment from them.

The main fear that is being spread by both sides about Brexit — the fear of fear itself; the deploring of mention of causes for fear, calling this “Project Fear” or “an appeal to fear” — is irrational. It is an intrusion into the realm of public politics of the deploring of doubt and fear that was supposed to be confined in the modern world to a private realm, the realm of religion. It creates mental blocks against the main task of the mature ego in practical life: evaluating the actual merits of specific fears and hopes.

This diagnosis, however, immediately raises a further question: Which in fact are the merits of the fears and hopes raised by Brexiters, and of those raised by Remainers?

This requires a look at matters that, as I said in my response to Mr Einstein about the problem of peace, are more properly the realm of political studies than psychological studies. Nevertheless, Einstein insisted, rightly, that psychology can provide some specific illuminations of its own on political matters. So I shall here make a brief inquiry into them.

My inquiry indicates, first and foremost, that both sets of fears deserve to be more rationally illuminated than has been the case in the public discussion; second, that the two sets of fears are not equivalent. They do not operate on the same level of analysis. They differ in fundamental ways in their relevance for evaluating Brexit.

I will begin with a summary of the results of my inquiry and follow with the specifics.


The Remainer fears about Brexiting are mostly rational. They are fears of consequences that Brexit could likely have.

The Brexiter fears about Remaining are mostly less rational. They are fears of policies that are likely to be discussed but unlikely to come to consummation, and that Brexit would not even help in preventing. They include projections onto the EU of fears about other matters, such as Britain’s inclusion of many Muslim migrants from its former Empire. The danger they most persuasively point to is the danger to the EU itself from its seeming sympathy for the kinds of policies that, though not adopted, are feared by the Brexiters. Brexit is not a cure for that danger; rather it contributes to it.

The sets of dangers, in other words, subsist on different levels. Only one of them, the dangers pointed to by the Remainers, are relevant to deciding on Brexit.

This does not mean that the mental blocks and projections of blame and failures to face problems and learn are exclusively problems of Brexiters. I am not giving Remainers a perfect bill of health. I am not saying that the concerns of Brexiters about possible future policy tendencies in the EU are merely silly and raise no issues that ought to be of concern for Remainers; or that Remainers, in arguing against them, would be right in simply dismissing them. Rather, many of the concerns raised by Brexiters ought to be of great concern also for Remainers, given that Remainers should wish to avoid self-harm by the EU.

Despite their importance operating on different levels and not always targeted accurately, both sets of fears have a legitimate public importance. Both merit reasoned discussion. Both are made the worse for getting instead largely repressed as a kind of deplorable fearmongering.

Evaluating the fears and hopes of Remainers and Brexiters

I evaluated by five criteria here the specific hopes and fears of the two camps, as follows:

1. Are the hopes of Remainers and Brexiters based on realities?

The exaggeration of hopes is almost on the Brexit side. The exaggeration is so severe as to be the most concerning aspect of this matter.

The hopes of Remainers are not for anything new or great to emerge if Britain were to remain. Their core hope — that a status quo policy will maintain the status quo — is rational.

The hopes of Brexiters are of a different quality. They frequently project a kind of national salvation, an escape from a supposed decadence and perdition; and a national rebirth in wondrous good things on top of that, magnificent new achievements, if Britain only leaves and reclaims a full formal independence and sovereignty. Hopes of generalized salvation are a matter of wish-fulfillment. The feeling of being decadent calls out for a special psychoanalytic inquiry, as does the dream of a regeneration; the languages betrays an anxiety over one’s generative powers.

The expectation of a generalized wish-fulfillment through a national regeneration is not a new phenomenon in politics. It has become the leitmotif of revolutionary movements and regimes in the last century. It has brought entire countries to ruin. This is what makes it a danger worth exploring in greater depth than can be done here. It will have to be a matter for another day.

2. Are the fears of the two sides based on realities?
Yes in most cases. Both sides point to realities that people need to heed. Both point to a need for attention by the other side to denied aspects of reality.

3. Are many of the fears given exaggerated expression?
Yes. This is not in itself a condemnation. Exaggeration is a normal part of the alerting process.

4. Are some of the fears exaggerated beyond healthy levels, or misdirected, pointing to misplaced solutions? Yes. Which ones?

Here there is an asymmetry. Remainers exaggerate mostly on a normal alerting scale to dangers that are probable though, by the nature of futurology, uncertain. Brexiters exaggerate far more greatly the likelihood of the events they fear, and often misstate what could cause them. This indicates a presence of phobias about causal forces and a misprojection of energies.

This is not, however, to dismiss the Brexiter warnings. They communicate a concern on a second level, more sound than their formal level of attack. On this other level, what they point to is a propensity, in opposite political circles, to careless impulses on migration, impulses that likely will continue and so continue to need to be combatted; and to a failure in many circles to learn from experience about the need to constrain these impulses. This could count as a diagnosis of phobias and mental blocks on the other side, too.

We can subdivide into two main policy areas for more detailed analysis.

a. Economic exaggerations

On the Brexit side there have been extravagant exaggerations of gains to be achieved by leaving the EU, of prospects for great new trade deals, of phenomenal growth by putting aside the regulations of the EU, and other ways of compensating for the more realistic feared losses.

On the Remain side there are also, naturally, polemical exaggerations about the costs of Brexit, but they have been in the normal alerting range not the extravagant range. They cite the forecasts made by professional economic forecasters, people who traditionally do forecasting for use by business entities in preparing their business plans and for use by government entities in preparing fiscal and monetary plans. It is a use that brings repeated intrusions of the reality principle, in the form of economic consequences and feedbacks. Market discipline is real, for forecasters as for their clients; it trains them to give little regard to their political biases. This indicates a probability of limitation of distortions to modest proportions.

Some observers point to an opposite distortion, one of underestimating the harm for fear of being called Project Fear. They say the forecasts underestimate specifically the damage from a no-deal Brexit, by assuming that preparations and side-deals would be made in good time in case of formally no-deal and neglecting to emphasize consequences in the absence of such. They also say the projections of economic harm from Brexit fail to take account of the many potential knock-on effects, such as political turmoil and Scottish secession. This means the downside and upside are not equal; the underestimation of harm could be considerable, but the overestimations which are likely to be small.

In sum and in balance, the forecasts of economic harm from Brexit are a matter of the reality principle. The dismissal of them as “Project Fear” is a matter of denial, and may have hindered estimation of the full extent of plausible economic damage.

b. Migration exaggerations

It is important to make a distinction here between kinds of warning: warnings of likely events, and warnings of likely impulses that would need to be opposed in order to avert such events. The natural overlap of these two things can lead to confusion.

The extreme exaggerations of Brexiters are, at least on the surface, of the first sort: warnings of events that are extremely unlikely. Specifically, they exaggerated the likelihood of mass migration events were Britain were to Remain, and associate this fear with the EU per se.

At the same time, their warnings are not without reason about mental blocks among many in the UK and EU alike against learning from the consequences of careless past policies relating to large migrations. Such mental blocks make it harder to avoid repetition of impulses toward such policies. As these have been repeated mistakes, and have done severe damage to the EU more than once, it is an indicator of severe resistance to learning.

This confusion has become intertwined with the dynamics of the polemic between Europeanists and Euroskeptics over the decades. It is not unusual for a two-camp polemic to create a symbiosis in opposing rhetorics and demonizations, exclusion of more subtle middle grounds, and talking past each other. In the present case, Euroskeptics conflate extra-European migration with intra-EU freedom of movement, facilitating depiction of the EU as inherently leading to mass extra-European in-migration. Europeanists respond by pointing out the illogic of the conflation. Yet many Europeanists speak of welcoming all migration as an EU value; many label it as racist and contrary to European values, when there is talk of restriction of migration or criticism of migrant cultures and migration consequences. This labeling, when it becomes habitual and indiscriminate, unavoidably creates a mental block, in the form of a fear of thinking the demonized thoughts. It also, like its opposite number the Euroskeptics, conflates the EU with indiscriminate openness to migration, just after having quite logically criticized the Euroskeptics for making this conflation. It is a dialogue of the deaf, spinning the mental knot not only on both sides but entangling it across their divide. This makes harder the work of those of us whose job is to disentangle mental blocks; or as one might say nowadays, deconstruct the web of their narratives.

Thus the Brexiter retort:  if new mass migrant dangers presently seem distant, it is because such policies have been opposed by anti-migrant forces kindred to the Brexiters and demonized like them; political leaders on the Continent have talked themselves into doing previously quite implausible things in welcoming migrants, and could do so again; they have done so out of a habit of deploring fears about such policies, forming verbal mental blocks against paying heed to them; they have repeatedly failed  to learn from the experience of severe public reactions against these and similar policies, such as encouragement of expectations of Turkish EU membership, even after these reactions have seriously damaged the EU, which in principle should be the last thing EU leaders should want to do; as long as they exclude learning by deploring the warnings, the dangers will keep recurring. In themselves, these points are valid, even important; but they do not mean that the feared outcomes are in fact significantly probable. Domestic political forces have in fact compelled Continental leaders to pay heed and pull back, with significant exceptions but rare ones, and ones that have become much harder to repeat. Brexit weakens these checking forces, by removing Britain as a sober weight on their side of the scale. When it comes to limiting non-European migration to Britain itself, it is the political leadership within Britain that Brexiters need to convince, not the EU. Non-European migration has always been almost entirely in UK hands; the role of the EU in pressuring the UK on it is small. The Brexit debate, by bringing Brexiters to advocate “global Britain”, is pushing Britain and its elites toward the very increases in extra-European migration that Brexiters hoped to prevent. This is the paradoxical dialectic of Brexit. What is specifically sought from Brexit, and could in its main part be achieved if realistically pursued without Brexit, is instead being undermined by Brexit.

It is not only on the Brexiter side that mental blocks and fears are producing diversions into self-defeating policy lines. There is also a paradoxical dialectic on the Europeanist side. The confidence in the EU among its member peoples has been considerably weakened over the last two decades by those among Europeanists who conflate migration with EU principles, and who deny the existence of legitimate reasons for concern about and restriction of it. This damage to the EU is likely to continue, as long as many of its proponents continue to refuse to learn from the experience of the past harm they have done. They too, like the Brexiters, have defense mechanisms for failing to notice that they are hurting their own cause. They deny this by the device of projecting onto the EU’s opponents the blame for the harm done. The latter are happy to get the credit for the EU’s troubles, yet some of them are quite frank in stating that the main credit for it, and for their own political successes such as the Brexit vote, must go to the opposite, pro-migration side and to Mrs Merkel.

5. Are their policies on Brexit relevant to avoiding what they fear?

On the Remain side, canceling Brexit via Article 50 would indeed avoid for now what Remainers fear. The alternative Remain policy — a second referendum — would provide a 50-50 chance of avoiding it in a more sustainable fashion.

On the Brexit side, leaving the EU is counter-productive to Brexiters’ goals on migration. It is leading to planning of more extra-European immigration, including the Muslim migration that Brexiters most wished to restrict. Britain’s government recognizes its continued need for immigrants; Brexit lessens the number of European’s willing to fill that need. Brexit’s own “global Britain” debating line compounds the effect. An actual Brexit would also diminish the size — otherwise growing — of the forces within the EU that favor a more restrictive EU migration policy. When policies are self-defeating to this degree, on so many levels — practical, rhetorical, political — it means they have been shaped by profound neuroses and self-deceptions.

It is another matter that, on both sides, people advocate various other policies whose adoption by their preferred institutions would be institutionally self-harming for those same institutions. That is normal in political life; ideologies regularly divert people in self-defeating directions, and governments frequently adopt policies that undermine confidence in themselves. What is distinctive in this case is that we are dealing with a governing authority, the EU, that is only half-formed. It is uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of discrediting itself. It adds to the discrediting effect when advocates of careless policies maintain that such policies are mandated by the very principles of the Union. It has become hard to state with certainty which puts the EU more at risk, the attacks on it by its opponents, or the persistent advocacy of using it for careless policy purposes that frighten large swathes of the public.