This summer, voters in the UK will vote to determine whether their country should exit the European Union. At the very same time, supporters of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will be watching their teams compete in the UEFA EURO 2016 tournament. Is it possible that results on the pitch in France will affect results at the polls in Britain?
It was one of the strangest comments ever uttered by a politician.
It was 2014, the football World Cup in Brazil was fast approaching, and Alex Salmond, then-leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, indicated his support for the England team. He smiled as she spoke, perhaps with a whiff of mischief on his lips. Nevertheless, there it was: the ultimate Scottish nationalist getting in bed with the enemy. Gravity turned on its head.
That whiff of mischief, however, shrouded a shrewd political calculation. The people of Scotland were approaching a “once in a generation” referendum on independence from the rest of Britain, and the Scottish Nationalist Party bandwagon was gaining momentum daily. Few true Scottish nationalists would have really liked to see England repeat its 1966 World Cup victory (however unlikely), but if it furthered their ultimate cause, why not? The smug, triumphant scenes of English flag waving would have surely annoyed enough Scots (whose own football team is currently rubbish) to increase the pro-independence vote by a couple of potentially vital percentage points. Mr Salmond was making mischief, and doing a deal with the devil. He was let down only by a performance by the England team so woeful that some Scots actually felt a sympathetic sense of shared impotence with their southern cousins.
Fast forward to 2016 and the gods of football are once again threatening to affect the most explosive political issues in the British Isles. This time the whole of the United Kingdom is voting, and the question is whether they cast themselves off from the European Union or continue to play a chippy but integral role in this extraordinary project of pooled sovereignty. The vote is scheduled for 23 June, right in the middle of the European Football Championships. Once again, footballing fortunes could play an intriguing role in the outcome of the vote.
England, as usual, will be taking part. The team won all ten of their qualifying matches, and is positioned as a slightly promising outsider for the title (the favourites are Germany, Spain, and the hosts France). Less routinely, England will be joined in the tournament by Northern Ireland and Wales. Northern Ireland are a robust side, unfancied but with little sense that they will be overawed by the exalted company. They last played in a major tournament in 1982. Wales have to go back even further for memories of the big time – the World Cup of 1958. They have one of the world’s highest profile players on their books, the dashing Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, along with a clutch of other players of Premiership quality, such as Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal. Scotland did not qualify, although the Republic of Ireland will also be in France.
So how might this sporting competition affect the vote?
The referendum takes place just after the group stage of the competition. England and Wales are together in a relatively easy group, along with Russia and Slovakia, while Northern Ireland face the daunting challenge of Germany, Poland, and Ukraine. The expectation is that England have too much quality and momentum for the other three teams in their group, as their unbeaten qualification attests. So the first prediction to be made is that strong English performances, with players such as Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, and Raheem Sterling cutting lose, will lead to a giddy sense of English over-confidence about their ability to go it alone on the world stage. (Remember: they won’t have the cold-shower of meeting any truly good team until after the referendum.) This will surely increase the vote to leave the EU by several percentage points.
Countervailing pressures will come from any skittish performances in the group stage, reminding the English that the days of Victorian pre-eminence are long gone. Strong play by the Germans in their group will also reduce the vote to exit. The realization that England will manage only until they come across a proper big team will reaffirm to voters that they are a middling power and thus stronger when standing together with the rest of Europe. A collapse at the group stage will drain self-belief to the extent that the idea of Britain taking on the world outside the EU will seem ludicrous. On this sliding scale, anything short of England striding through the group stage will add votes to the “stay” campaign.
For Wales and Northern Ireland the calculations are different. If they make headway to the knockout stages (or even hold their own enough against group opponents to go home with their heads held high), this will surely kindle a liking for being on the European stage. Success at the group stage will then translate into votes for the “stay” campaign. If, on the other hand, they are routinely walloped, the impact will probably be neutral. The Northern Irish will probably see their cousins in the Republic also walloped, and this might engender feelings of all being in the European boat together, boosting the “stay” campaign. (NB these are marginal effects, as England has a population of 53 million, compared to three million in Wales and less than two million in Northern Ireland.)
And what of Scotland?
As Mr Salmond calculated back in 2014, any sense of English triumphalism would go down particularly badly with the Scots, without even the chance to cheer on their own team. English success will surely mean more Scottish votes to stay in the EU. But if England collapse (yet again), there will also be a strong sense in Scotland that all the hapless constituents of the UK would be best sticking with the rest of the continent.
There is, however, a further intriguing question with the Scots, who tend to be more pro-EU. It’s conceivable that a football-fired “leave” vote by the vastly more numerous English could take the whole of the UK out of the EU, despite most Scots voting to stay. Mr Salmond’s SNP have intimated that this would trigger another “once in a generation” referendum on Scottish independence, which they feel they would win. The United Kingdom would then leave the European Union, before realising how disunited their own union is in reality. Alternatively, the extra Scottish “stay” votes could tip the overall vote, despite a presumably slender majority of English voters wanting to leave the EU. This would lead to even more fractious cross-border politics.
Rarely has a sporting competition had such potentially historic geopolitical ramifications as this summer’s European Championships. Instead of investigating economic trends, great speeches, and political dealmaking to understand the momentous events of the summer of 2016, scholars of the future might instead note that history decisively changed course when a ball bounced off Jamie Vardy’s backside and into the Russian net.
Nicholas Walton was the European editor for the BBC World Service and correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. He is author of Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower. Nicholas tweets at @.