Skip to main content

Assessing the Implications for EU Structural Funding Programmes: Why did Cornwall Vote for Brexit?

Assessing the Implications for EU Structural Funding Programmes

Joanie Willett, Garry Tregidga, Rebecca Tidy, Phillip Passmore. Institute of Cornish Studies.

Key findings

  • People felt deeply uncertain and insecure about many of the things that they relied on to make their lives function well (such as public services, housing, access to healthcare).
  • In this sense of uncertainty, people felt that the nation state should be able to protect them. When it was unable to make their lives easier, they were then able to say that the UK is under threat from the EU, and felt protective towards the UK.
  • People also felt that many funded projects didn’t reflect things that they felt were important and made their lives feel better. We recommend a more participatory approach to development decisions and that structural funding take a broader approach to the types of projects that can be funded.


In the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU, regions which benefitted from high levels of structural funds voted to leave the EU. This was unexpected given the Europeanisation processes expected of the funds in terms of identity and loyalty. Within this case study of Cornwall, we use qualitative methods to assess why this happened and the implications for future structural funding programmes.

We find that the rationale behind the Brexit vote was less about the EU as an institution, but was a reflection of the deep levels of uncertainty, insecurity, and frustration that people felt about governance decisions, scarce resources, and the future for themselves and their children. Interview participants commonly expressed fear that their children would not be able to afford a home of their own; would have difficulties finding a job that pays the bills; were concerned about the difficulty of seeing an NHS doctor when unwell; and feared that there would be no social care to help them in old age. They perceived that leaving the EU may lead to a reduction in immigration and thus, less competition for these scarce resources. This created a situation where people looked to the nation state for support and security, and were fearful of post-national forms of identification and governance.

Moreover, Leave voters interviewed tended to imagine the EU as hierarchical and bullying, with little commonality of identity with the UK. This enabled them to argue that both the UK and the citizen needed to be protected from an institution that only helps elites, at a time when people felt a real threat and challenge to their standard of living and access to essential services. It is this situation which underpins the statement to ‘take back control’.

Finally, measureable positive impacts from EU structural development funding were not felt and experienced by our Leave voting participants. This further helped them to imagine EU support as being organised by elites, for elites, rather than benefitting local communities.

This has important implications for how we invest any further development funding that is available. We suggest breaking down some of the barriers that have arisen between ‘decision-makers’ and the general public through a participatory approach to development decision-making, greater flexibility to regional priorities, and forms of funding that individuals might apply to – such as a skills pot to facilitate easier access to further education and training. We also recommend that measures of success for future development explores whether people feel that improvements have had a positive impact on their lives.

»Read full paper on Open Research Exeter (ORE)