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24 February 2016

Will Euro 2016 have an impact on the EU referendum result?

The June referendum falls in the middle of the festival of national identity that is the European football championship.

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

On 23 June, over 100,000 people eligible to vote in the EU referendum will be partying in a field in Somerset. The clash between the Glastonbury festival and the in-out referendum may frustrate politicos who are there (will there be a special tent with a screen of Huw Edwards?) but surely won’t affect the referendum result.

Yet there is another clash which may actually shape voters’ behaviour at the ballot box. On 10 June in Paris’s Stade de France, the quadrennial European football championships will begin.

This means that in the days leading up to the referendum, and for a couple of weeks afterwards as well, people across Europe will be engrossed in an event that intrinsically celebrates national division. In the crucial final leg of the campaign, as David Cameron and Alan Johnson try to persuade voters that we are better off cooperating with our European friends, football fans will vent at any country standing in their national team’s way.

Nationalism and football have a fairly well-established relationship. In May 1990, as Yugoslavia was crumbling, its football league kept going. Precisely a week after Croatia’s first multi-party elections in half a century, at which parties supporting Croatian independence won a majority of votes, Red Star Belgrade visited Dinamo Zagreb. The leader of the Red Star Belgrade supporters’ club was Željko Ražnatović, who would become “Arkan”, a Serbian paramilitary commander indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity. It’s fairly unsurprising, then, that violence broke out between the two sets of fans in advance of the game.

Once the two teams had kicked off, the fighting spilled onto the field. As Yugoslav policemen tried to break up the scuffles, Zvonimir Boban, one of the Zagreb players, kicked one of them in anger – becoming a Croatian nationalist icon in the process. Dr Nikos Skoutaris, an expert in conflict resolution and European law at the University of East Anglia, tells me that this match is “seen as the game that actually started the civil war between Croatians and Serbians”.

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As much as it reflected and inflamed national tensions, Zagreb v Belgrade was only a club fixture. International matches can provoke conflict too. At Euro 2008, Turkey beat Croatia on penalties in Vienna to advance to the semi-finals. 344 miles away in Mostar, the demographically divided city in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, the consequences were profound. Because Mostar has roughly similar proportions of Bosnian Muslims (who were supporting Turkey) and ethnic Croats, the city is always tightly wound. That evening, rival fans flung bottles and rocks at each other, gunshots were heard and the police cordoned off the town centre.

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Afterwards, Skoutaris tells me, “they couldn’t actually have a mayor, they couldn’t have a local council, because in order to have a local council in Mostar you need equal representation of Bosniaks and Croats. So there was political stasis for many years because of the tensions between the two factions – and all triggered by the football game.”

These stories only go so far. Britain’s relationship with Europe is barely analogous to the post-Yugoslavia settlement in the Balkans. Nevertheless, some still attribute Harold Wilson’s unexpected election defeat in 1970 to England’s World Cup exit after defeat by West Germany just four days before polling day. Fortunately for David Cameron, England are fairly unlikely to have been kicked out the tournament before the referendum, which falls between the group stages and the round of sixteen. With the tournament now enlarged to 24 teams, only eight countries will be out by then.

But even if Roy’s Boys (along with whatever similarly lame nickname you want to attach to the Welsh and Northern Irish teams) are still in France on 23 June, academics are divided on what the political effect of a “feelgood factor” might be. Some research has suggested that success in national athletic events increases national pride, which in turn leads to greater prejudice against outsiders. But other academics think that the country becomes more positive about the status quo and more supportive of the state as a whole, which is more the effect the Prime Minister would welcome.

In a study by academics at the University of Oxford and the International Hellenic University, members of the Greek public were surveyed about their attitudes to minorities before and after the Greek national football team’s crucial World Cup 2014 game against the Ivory Coast. Greece won, qualifying for the last 16 for the first time ever. The researchers write that, “Becoming ‘Kings for a Day’, Greek citizens felt less victims than usual”, and this might inculcate lower levels of prejudice.

Perhaps the most predictable effect is not going to be on the national mood but in simply making it quite hard for politicians to get the referendum campaign noticed. Football tournaments dominate national attention even when it’s just England grinding out draws, and with Wales in their first international tournament since 1958 and Northern Ireland their first since 1982, there’ll be plenty of excitement. The BBC announced yesterday that it will hold a referendum debate in Wembley arena on 21 June. Will households across the country really tune in to that, or will they watch the reigning champions Spain playing Croatia on ITV?

Still, there’s one thing we can be sure of. Politicians will make bad jokes that try to link football and their position on the EU and everyone will cringe.