The Existential and Emotional impact of Brexit

Prof Emmy van Deurzen

A strange situation

Each day brings us new information about the devastation that leaving the EU will visit upon us from April 2019, when we plan to cut off from our trusted partners. Our descent in the global world has already begun and prefigures the enormity of what is going to happen. Many of us are acutely aware of the Orwellian world we now inhabit. Our leaders appear to live in a daze of self-deception and denial. They exhibit a strange determination to continue burning bridges that we have spent many decades constructing and that are essential to our connectivity and survival. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are on trial, as if a social experiment is being rolled out to test our personal resilience and sanity. We all respond differently to the situation. Some are carrying on with their lives as if nothing has happened and all is normal. Some are still in shock and can’t quite believe this is happening. Some are tearing out our hair in despair. It all seems so counter intuitive and non-sensical. It is as if a shadow of madness has crept over our nation. We feel weary of all the fighting, disorientated and uncertain about the future. Very few of us are exempt from these reactions: in one way or another the specter of Brexit is affecting us.

Feelings run high

Some weeks ago, Dr. Helen De Cruz and myself did a short survey with1300 UK citizens, who had voted to remain in the EU. Their responses show clearly how they have been feeling since the referendum. Theirs are strong and deep emotions. They feel devastated, angry, depressed, betrayed and ashamed, nearly two years after the referendum. This is intense and intimate stuff. What has happened to them is personal. They feel their lives have been totally changed by what has happened. The vote has struck at the core of their identity and continues to dominate their everyday experience. They are not about to let go of these feelings.

The word cloud below illustrates the shape and intensity of this emotional landscape. It should be food for thought for all of us.

The disenfranchised

While seventeen million people voted to exit the EU, sixteen million people voted to remain in the EU and many who voted leave now regret that choice. Few people really knew what was at stake and what would happen. We need to keep remembering that in addition to the 16 million who voted to stay, there were at least 5 million potential voters who were disenfranchised from the vote and who would have been likely to vote remain as well. The 3.5 million EU citizens who are settled in the UK and the UK citizens who have been resident abroad for more than fifteen years have been treated as second class citizens and were not allowed to participate in a referendum that was vital to them. Many of them feel very strongly about this as their personal circumstances are directly touched by this vote from which they were excluded. It does not sit well with our expectations of a democratic nation. Some of these people have had their lives totally altered or brought into disarray by a situation they had no say in and they feel scandalized and victimized by this. They have campaigned hard, but feel unheard and forsaken, for it seems as if their protests and arguments hardly matter. As a psychotherapist I have worked with many people who are in this position and some of them are truly devastated, because they have nowhere to turn. Not everyone can obtain settled status and many people have no home or family in their country of origin. They are British to all intents and purposes and should have been offered the sanctuary of dual nationality straight away. They feel as if they have lost their identity and their human rights. Of course, there are some in the group of EU citizens who are much more casual about the situation, especially those who are in the country on a temporary contract. Others have now been able to make different arrangements: some have obtained British citizenship or have decided to leave the UK. We know that hundreds of thousands have already left and many more are planning to do so after Brexit. Some are tied to the country by marriage or professionally and a significant number of them are so deeply upset that they are not able to cope with the situation and have broken down. Because of this the Existential Academy (a community interest company) created a free emotional support service for Europeans in the UK (ESSE), supported by New Europeans. Esse is a free service provided via phone and online. It is run and supervised by registered existential therapists but has no funding and is finding it harder and harder to find the volunteers.

One thing our work at the ESSE clinic has shown us is how great the need for people to connect to others in a similar situation. People who withdraw and stop talking to others about the situation they find themselves in get worse very quickly. When they reengage and realize they are taken seriously and can do something about their plight things improve immediately. Working with pro-European groups has been particularly beneficial for many. Being sucked into a vortex of gloom and doom is not good for any of us however and it is crucial for our resistance to remain positive, constructive and purposeful.


Getting a hold of reliable information has been another healing factor for many. The initial stages of the Brexit tragedy were surrounded with so much misinformation and denial of reality. It was very confusing. The more accurate information we are able to gather and the more we feel supported by a network of reliable resources the better things get. Many experts have issued warnings and keep pointing out the dangers and potential torments we are courting, but sometimes this leads to further confusion when facts are denied by people who are more political than truthful. We have heard many speakers at the protests and marches, warning us, but we need their words to be confirmed by official announcements. These have been badly lacking. Hundreds of thousands of people have been mobilized in all these events, but the national media have been loath to report on these important gatherings. We have long known that the gutter press is in favour of leaving and lies through its teeth, but it is the reliability of the rest of the press that has been in question latterly. People have become increasingly wary of the BBC’s pro government stance and this has been distressing for many. It is as if the things we used to prize and take for granted as reliable are now suddenly in question. People are grateful for staunchly pro-European broadsheets like the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent and more and more are reading the NEW European for support. It is here that we find out what is really happening and recover our sense of reality. It gives us courage in the middle of this debacle. We are now well aware that without social media the vote to leave would probably never have happened, for we have seen how vulnerable people were targeted with mendacious messages about Europe and were led to believe that there were real dangers to them of staying in the EU. Be it by Cambridge Analytica or other organizations, we know the leave campaign was not straight and we also know it did not stick to the electoral commission’s financial limits.

On the other hand social media have been the meeting rooms of the resistance movement. We have seen the many online groups growing and thriving, connecting us throughout the country and making it much easier to get organized. It is through Facebook and Twitter that we discovered our natural allies and have become conversant with the impact studies and the fact that we all felt the same way about what was happening. If there is one silver lining to the dark clouds of Brexit it is this loyalty and solidarity of the remain movement and the real enthusiasm for the peace and collaboration that is Europe.

Grasping the nettle

Most of us still find it hard to hold on to the magnitude of the project this country is embarking on, let alone to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the wide-ranging implications of what this break will do to the country. We keep hearing about the dangers to the economy, the NHS, our trade and industry, our professions, agriculture and fishery, aviation and many other aspects of society. No area is exempt and we are all at risk. Each single one of these dangers should normally be sufficient evidence to make us doubt what we are doing and for politicians to call a halt to the process. But the chorus of Brexiters dismisses all the facts out of hand and keeps on with this lamentable project. This causes further confusion, for we no longer trust that those we have elected are safeguarding us. We have lost our trust in the rationality of the process and we are bereft of seeing a proper opposition to the madness in front of us. The continued cries of ‘democracy’ and ‘voice of the people’, are only echoes of what is wrong. It is plain for all to see that it was demagoguery that won the vote, not democracy. It is obvious that the people have now changed their minds. And at any rate, nobody ever voted to leave the single market or customs union and yet the government and the opposition keep acting as if the people had decided to do so. We cannot conclude what people meant by voting for Brexit, unless we ask them again. The red lines that our minority government has drawn are imaginary and certainly not based on public opinion as it has now evolved. We would need to see a review of the strategy, but no one appears to be really tackling the challenges. Nobody in power is grasping the nettle. Major issues are being neglected or ignored. We hardly hear about Gibraltar or the Falklands, which will be greatly impacted by Brexit. The Northern Ireland issues are white washed and not taken sufficiently seriously. The EU citizens plight was never resolved and it looks increasingly as if this country is happy to watch over a Brexodus of intelligent people who have lost faith in their adoptive home land. Those who remain are realizing that their situation will not be the same afterwards and that they are being turned into an underclass. The financial impact analyses are hugely alarming and have been brushed off far too lightly. It is all hugely irresponsible and no one bats an eyelid.

Lack of responsibility

Those who are pushing us into Brexit appear to have lost all sense of history, geography and long-term perspective on the future. They seem obsessed with their single-minded pursuit of the grand project of Britain’s independence. They appear to neglect to look at the consequences. They appear to forget that in today’s world internationalism is the only way forward. Nationalism is delusional. This is the picture that our continental cousins are watching: the picture of a country that has become delusional and that is at war with itself and which is voluntarily stripping itself of all its power and influence. We appear to have become a rogue state.

Many of us feel a kind of chronic pain and dull existential despair about this. And lets just remember that those of us who feel this are in the majority now. Roughly a quarter of the people on this island voted to leave, but the other three quarters did not vote, could not vote or decided to vote to remain. There are 45 million people plus in the UK who did not vote for Brexit and many of us are increasingly exasperated. And things are not getting any better so that more and more of us have lost confidence in this project and realize it is a form of insanity, a paranoiac’s fantasy. It is literally not healthy for the country’s well-being. As we watch our nurses and doctors vacating their posts, leaving the UK, because they feel in danger, we feel increasingly less easy ourselves. We are also vaguely aware that sometime next year all of us stand to lose our EU citizens rights, which we have come to value.

There is a general sense of dreariness descending on the land. We are beginning to guess at how much we are discarding. We are beginning to see that it will not feel like victory but more like defeat and self-injury. When reality starts to bite next year, the disapproval and protest in the country will find a whole new level of intensity. No more talk of remoaners or complainers then. It will seem that those who did speak up were the heroes, who should have been listened to while there was still time to heed them.

Learning our lessons

On 7 May John Harris published an article in the Guardian in which he argued that Brexit will be calamitous but has to happen because it is the only way in which Britain will learn the lesson that it is not exceptional. But this is an unacceptable argument. As a parent you would never apply such a theory of necessary failure to your children. To apply it to your country is even more brazen. Brexit is an error that has to be corrected before it decimates us. You might stand by, letting your child handle a knife so clumsily they end up cutting their finger, taking the view that this is a salutary lesson about their own vulnerability and the sharpness of knives. But if they were at risk of running under a speeding car, we would prevent that accident from happening with all the means at our disposal. So it is with Brexit, for it is a lethal accident waiting to happen. It is an existential crisis we must prevent.

Already there are very few leavers who continue to voice their past confidence. It is rare that anyone maintains that all will be well. Some people are claiming that the challenge and penury will be good for the country, a way to pull in our belts. How odd to see this Nietzschean motto, that ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ taking root in the British psyche. Lets remember that this was never true. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us makes us feeble, or disabled, or discouraged. It is possible to survive hard times and gain in strength, but it is equally possible to become destitute or despondent. No government should aim to make its citizens worse off as this one is doing. It amounts to recklessness and it isn’t clever, wise or desirable.

A nation divided

The tension between opposing factions has taken its toll and feels like an underground threat that is everywhere around us. We have become wary of speaking our minds in public or even with friends and family. We are worried about being judged for how we feel and think about things. Most people try to avoid the topic, for fear of being gunned down by someone on the opposite side. It is a kind of regime of terror that reigns, where it is hard to say what you truly think and sometimes it becomes even hard to have the confidence of your own convictions. It reminds me a lot of what my mother told me about living in the occupied Netherlands in the Second World War: you were always cautious and careful of what you said, in case someone would betray you to the authorities. That’s often how it feels to me now, as if we were under occupation by a foreign force.

One of the human costs of Brexit is this lack of unity in the country, the lack of trust and safety in our nation. This is also about living in bad faith: for we are constantly having to pretend that all is well with the world, when actually we sense that of course it isn’t. It feels personal and tragic, because we know we are on the wrong side of history. The UK is committing an error that nobody is correcting.

We can hardly imagine the deprivations and disasters that will be visited upon us when it finally happens. Even Europhiles are not thinking concretely and critically about what this will mean in practice. Too many people hold on to the notion that Brits have grit and will not just survive these challenges ahead but will actually thrive on the problems. This is undoubtedly because Britain has never been occupied and people really have very little idea of what is about to hit them.

Because Britain won the wars it has become set in an image of its own ability and capacity that is now wildly overstretched and overrated. We still believe that defeat cannot happen and that the country cannot slacken or slow down to such a point that we get ground down and go under. But of course, this is now perfectly possible, because we have not made any arrangements for replacing all the services, treaties and connections that we are giving up on.

No credible alternatives

It is rather stark when you start to really think about it. You cannot cut yourself off from your 27 nearest neighbors, without creating dangers and obstacles for yourself. People across the water are only supporting us because they are aware of the strength of pro European feelings in the remainers. It is because they see our valiant battle that they are still on our side and have fellow feelings. Once we are fully in post Brexit mode that situation will change considerably. We shall be alone against the many. We shall be the party poopers who have let down our friends. We shall be on the outside of the largest market and peace project in the world, instead of being part of it. We may lose Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and the Falklands. We shall only have ourselves to blame for it. The self-harm was all our own, but we are offending many others in the process. We must fervently hope that it never comes this far and that we do not find ourselves on the other side of a conflict the size of a continent.

It might have been fine to oppose the European Union and leave it, had we had a credible alternative to it. But of course there never was one. There is only a choice: whether we participate fully and take a lead in it, or accept its conditions from the outside, without having any remaining say or rights, influence, impact or even the right of expressing an opinion on it. We have opted to become rule takers rather than rule makers. We will regret it and never forget it.

There cannot be any new ways of unifying the countries of Europe. We created the EU, and the UK made a strong contribution to that amazing achievement. We helped to set the standards and to create the platforms and the ideas that have made Europe what it is today. Europe is hugely successful. We did well. We were a worthy partner, despite our frequent demands for exemptions and special status. We had a great deal and were much appreciated.

All that is being thrown away. We have become difficult, stubborn and uncooperative. We are not likely to get any special deals that are anywhere near as good as the ones we had obtained over the years. We have behaved like a prima donna throwing a temper tantrum, when we should have continued to be the statesmen and women who would be amongst the architects of the EU’s change and improvement.

There can be no excuse for this behaviour though we are hearing many explanations for what has been happening all the time. At the end of the day we are facing a moral dilemma, which is about whether we want to pretend to be independent or whether we accept the challenge of working together with those around us.


It pains me to see the UK opting for glacial isolation. As a psychologist and psychotherapist I am all too familiar with this scenario in individuals, in couples, in families and in organizations. It is not an unusual situation. Many people cope with the world by isolating themselves, either in their closed off inner world, or by setting themselves above the people they live and work with, denying the true interactions and communication that bring us closeness and intimacy. People do this generally speaking because of insecurity and because they find a way to get away with it, temporarily. It may provide a bit of safety for a while and we may find a way to opt out for a bit by staying out of touch with reality, but very soon we become too sheltered, too remote, and too unchallenged. It is always a bad scenario in the end.

Britain, or rather, this British government, has been acting out this same tendency towards protectionism and isolationism. It is a defensive strategy, which is not based on any great alternatives. There is no good foundation on which to make a success of separatism without the EU and it will be bad for the nation in every imaginable way. We know the narrative was based in deception. We know all the evidence is that it will make us worse off rather than better. It has got so bad that the discourse we hear is often the exact opposite of what is true in a situation. We have definitely landed ourselves in the Orwellian situation of double-speak. This mendacity has fooled many, hopeful for a better life. It is a great shame to the nation that this has happened and in the end it will lead to people feeling angry and betrayed, when they realize how much worse things are actually getting.

For now the voices of reason still get drowned out by the razzmatazz of the press and the distortions of the Brexit mentality. It is like living in a low-grade civil war where we have to use guerilla tactics. Often we forget to fight the war of words however.

Sleight of hand

A lot of the Brexit politics has been fed by using words and metaphors in a deceptive manner. The notion that Brexit is like a divorce is a good example of that: it is a misplaced comparison that has allowed people to get away with a lot of bad practice. For everyone nowadays is inured to the idea of divorce and this has led to us feeling it was acceptable.

But this was never just like a divorce. The breakup of a marriage is a hugely misleading normalizing metaphor. We are not just leaving a marriage. You cannot divorce your family. This is much more serious than that. We have no alternative partners on our doorstep. We are fighting against our own elemental belonging. We are at war with our own origins. We are living in a pretend narrative of being able to survive stopping our own blood flow. We are interwoven with our continent and have been for many centuries. Only now to remain connected to it, we need to be part of team EU. There is no other way to do it. We are in the top team and we are opting out: there is no other game in town. We will be down and out. Brexit is an auto-immune problem that will plague us for years to come, unless we face up to its true impossibility now and cure the disease before it paralyses us. It is simply not possible to stop our bonds with the continent. Trying to do so is an attack on our own continued integrity. It is going to slow us down and greatly constrain and confine us to close down our borders. We shall suffocate. Those who have tried are now having to reinvent the wheel and figure out ways of doing deals that are imitating the best of what we have created over forty, fifty years. It is not sane. It is not clever and it will not pay dividends other than in despair, regret, losses and sadness.


Those who are fighting hard on the side of remaining in the EU know a thing or two about it. Many of us have clear European roots, unlike most of the leavers who are out of touch with their immigrant history, which of course, we all share. There would have been no inhabitants on this island without centuries of immigration. We are a mixing bowl of different influxes and cultures. Migration is what keeps any nation alive and on its toes and afloat. Life is movement and dynamic challenge. Stemming that flow is to kill the very system that sustains you. This is true for all immigrations, from all continents. But it is most particularly so for our migration in and out of Europe.

We are entirely interbred with Europe. Most Brits have some continental DNA in their veins and their bodies. Europe itself is full of British influences. Being European is about human evolution. The peace in Europe has been hard earned and grew out of wars between villages, towns, regions and countries, until we had evolved enough and suffered enough after two world wars to do the sensible thing and work towards a common goal and purpose. The EU is what peace in Europe means. It cannot happen without it and we cannot afford to be outside it.

This is part of our history and must be part of our future that we continue to iron out the differences and disagreements between our countries. It is a feather in the cap of the EU that it won the Nobel peace prize in 2012. And this was well deserved, for never have two countries within the EU fought each other as part of that pact we made with each other. We have been part of the longest and most successful peace project in the world. And we would disdain it and think ourselves above and beyond it?

Past problems and future solutions

Working towards a meaningful relationship with the European Union is a vital aspect of moving forwards towards a wider world of peace and freedom, fairness and unity. In order to succeed in the world and be trustworthy we have to remain part of Europe. We cannot be separate from that project. We must be leaders in it, not leave it. To default on this is a gigantic historical error.

I have campaigned hard because I would be ashamed as a new Brit, who only obtained British citizenship in 2017, to allow this to happen to my country, during my lifetime. I know that many Brits feel similarly about it. I know how strong that pro European feeling has become in the past two years and this gladdens me greatly. It is by far the best thing to come out of the whole debacle: this growing awareness of the prize that we have in being part of the EU and how important and vital it is that we continue to be so and contribute to it.

In the forty-one years that I have lived and worked in the UK I have never before experienced this commitment to the European project. Never before have I felt so much at home here, so surrounded by people who actually get it. To be European as well as British is the key to peace and prosperity. To regress to isolation and insularity will bring danger and penury. We do not have to be afraid of being swamped by our EU partners. They are our allies. They want to work with us, not against us.

This is what the European Union was founded for and we have purloined its purpose by focusing always on economic advantage. What we need is a lot more facts and education about all these matters. We desperately need to restore the free flow of information and return the freedom to vote unimpeded to our members of parliament. A free vote on the final deal with the option to remain would bring back confidence in democracy. That is the right way forward. We cannot allow Britain to succumb to dictatorial and autocratic tendencies. Most people need reassurance about this, for they no longer recognize their own country.

We all know that Brits are better than this.
Britain was the bedrock of democracy.
We were the leaders in establishing peace in Europe.
We are fair minded, collaborative and rational people.
We know how to work hard and do what is right.

Many of us continue to say this with all our might.
It is time that people realize which way the judgment of history lies.
It will condemn us roundly if we fail ourselves and let decency be drowned in lies.
We must stand up, speak up and decide to affirm our democratic heritage.
We must go forth and tear down the fallacy that Brexit is a done deal and that our fate is sealed or that we owe this enormous and lasting suffering to that one mistaken referendum.

We need to heal the nation and speak about truth, peace and decency once again. The people will be pleased. They crave safety in these times of craziness.

Prof. Emmy van Deurzen leading the September march for Europe, on behalf of New Europeans with Prof. Digby Tantam.

Emmy van Deurzen is a philosopher, psychologist and existential therapist with sixteen books to her name. She is the principal of a postgraduate College of higher education, in partnership with Middlesex University, with whom she is a professor of psychology and psychotherapy.

She is Vice Chair of New Europeans and Founder Chair of Voices for Europe. She has spoken at a dozen rallies, marches and protests all over the country. She is known on Twitter as @emmyzen.