For ten years, Prime Minister David Cameron has been saying that his party should stop “banging on about Europe.” But far from stopping, the debate has gotten louder and louder, and now it has finally come to a head. On June 23, the UK will vote in an in/out referendum. The ballot will read: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
Cameron is traveling up and down the country, being grilled at televised town halls and debates every week. Exchanges with voters can be tense. “I’m an English literature student, I know waffling when I see it,” one woman said testily to Cameron during a town hall.
In the past months, the British have split into two camps: supporters of the “Leave” campaign—those who support Brexit (the potential British exit from the EU)—and supporters of the “Remain” side, who favor Britian staying in the EU.
The divide is not split down party lines. Members of both major political parties—Conservative and Labour—have allied to campaign across Britain. David Cameron surprised voters when he joined forces with the newly elected mayor of London, Sadiq Khan to advocate for “Remain.” (In the recent mayoral campaign, Cameron suggested Khan had shared a platform multiple times in the past with a supporter of ISIS.) President Obama traveled to the UK in April—after originally being scheduled to go in July—to speak out against Brexit. And British actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley signed an open letter to push the Remain cause.
The most prominent leader on the Leave side is Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, who has claimed that the EU restricts British people’s sovereignty on public policy, calling it an “invisible process of legal colonization.” Donald Trump opposed President Obama’s position and said the UK would be “better off” outside the EU.
WHY DO SOME BRITS WANT TO LEAVE?
Over the past several months, there has been growing support in the UK for the “Brexiter” faction, a group that believes Britain would be better off leaving the EU.
The biggest factor in the Brexit debate has been immigration. Over 300,000 migrants came to the UK last year—55% of them from the European Union. As more immigrants have arrived, the British population has become increasingly unhappy with liberal EU immigration policy. Out of this resentment came the rise of the right-wing populist party, the UK Independence Party, and its leader, Nigel Farage. (UKIP had been founded in the 1990s on the belief that the UK should not be part of the EU.)
Farage is known for his inflammatory comments about immigration. He said that the UK has become “unrecognizable” with the influx of immigrants. Farage lamented, “in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more.” “Does that make me feel slightly awkward?” he continued, “Yes it does.” In the 2015 General Election, UKIP received 3.8 million votes—12.6% of the voter share.
Farage received widespread criticism last week after unveiling a poster with a photo of Syrian refugees that read “BREAKING POINT”. A top advocate for the Leave campaign, Michael Gove, said the poster made him “shudder.”
Voters worry that immigration strains public services, increases welfare spending, and threatens British jobs. But immigrants are essential to public services—they make up 20% of its workforce. And even if Brexiters get the kind of trade deal they want outside of the EU, immigration is not likely to go down. Countries like Switzerland and Norway—which are outside of the EU but part of the single market—still agree to free movement policies and have higher levels of immigration than Britain.
Many British people are attracted to anti-European political messages because they feel they are not getting a “good deal” in the EU. The Leave campaign claims Britain pays too large a share in the EU—£55 million a day. But Britain pays closer to 17 million per day and is only the 8th largest contributor per head in the EU.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
“It would be like surviving a fall, then running straight back to the cliff edge,” David Cameron said. Brexiters have accused the Remain campaign of fear mongering. In a recent interview, Cameron said the word “risk” 18 times in a 20 minute interview—once every 66 seconds.
In some ways, the Leave side has an advantage in messaging: “Take Control” is more rousing than Remain’s “Stronger, Safer, Better Off.” The Remain campaign has had to push back on the promises of a brighter future outside of the EU with warnings of the risks Brexit brings. The reality is that Britain will have much less control if it leaves the EU.
Brexit has been ranked as the number one economic threat facing the world. Being part of the EU—the world’s largest single market—means that Britain can do business with other European countries without tariffs or strict regulation. Businesses also benefit from being able to easily recruit skilled workers from across the EU. By some estimates, being part of the EU provides net 4 to 5 percent of British GDP, compared with Britain’s contribution to the EU budget, only net 0.4 percent of its GDP.
In the event of a Brexit, the predicted numbers from the British Treasury point to a recession. The value of the pound would fall 14-15% to the dollar, wages would go down, and over half a million jobs would be lost. By 2020, the British economy would be 6% smaller than if the UK were still part of the EU. Vacation costs in the EU would go up.
Britain would be weaker internationally as well. President Obama warned that Brexit would send the UK to the “back of the queue” in international trade negotiations. Despite calls from the “Leave” side to take control, the UK has much more influence in the EU than it would outside of it. The Economist makes the point that sovereignty is relative in the 21st century: “Consider the trade-off: let foreigners have some influence over your country of 64 million and in return receive quite a lot of influence over a union of more than 500 million.” From nuclear weapon restrictions to climate agreements to NATO, trade-offs are necessary and beneficial for countries willing to participate. Britain has and can continue to play a leading role in shaping the EU.
WHY IS THE REFERENDUM HAPPENING?
If Cameron so desperately wants Britain to stay in the EU, why would he offer the British people the opportunity to leave? The EU has become less popular in Britain. Previous leaders from the opposite, more liberal Labour party, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were pro-EU. Coupled with a swell of immigration from Eastern Europe, the 2008 financial crisis had people doubting whether the EU made their lives any better.
In recent years, the Conservative party has lost support and needed to attract anti-European voters. With the 2015 General Election approaching, David Cameron promised in 2013 to hold an in/out EU referendum if he was reelected.
But Cameron didn’t expect the referendum to happen. It looked like the Conservative Party would not have a majority in the 2015 election, meaning that they would have to join with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government. The Liberal Democrats are pro-Europe and would have gotten rid of the EU referendum in negotiating talks before forming an alliance. Cameron took the bargain. Unexpectedly, David Cameron and the Conservative Party won the general election by a large majority. Now he has been forced to make good on his promise. And his political career rests on the result. Cameron will be forced to resign if Britain votes to leave—and even if remain prevails, Cameron’s political career has already been marred by the referendum.
In an attempt to satisfy Euro skeptics, Cameron negotiated better terms for Britain in Brussels. He announced in February that he had secured a “special status” for the UK. Under the terms of the negotiation, Britain will never be required to join the Euro currency and will therefore not be responsible for Eurozone bailouts. The UK will also have more control over immigration and government benefits given to immigrants. Cameron claims that by these terms, the UK has the “best of both worlds.”
IN OR OUT?
The final result will be close. Peter Kellner, former president of YouGov, a polling firm, has argued that history suggests Britain will vote for the status quo in the end. The most recent example is the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The polls were similarly close several weeks before the vote, but final warnings of the dangers of the referendum in the final days turned out a 10 percent margin of victory for the “Better Together” campaign.
A poll in The Independent two weeks before the vote showed that 55% of British supported Brexit, compared with 45% who would rather stay in the EU. But as the vote approaches, some support has swung back to the “Remain” side. A poll two days before the vote showed the camps now neck and neck: a 45-44 lead for remaining in the EU.
A horrifying shock came in the final days of the debate when Member of Parliament, Jo Cox was murdered a week ahead of the vote. Cox supported the “Remain” campaign and was outspoken about the benefits of immigration. Both campaigns were suspended for several days after her death.
There is no telling which way the vote will swing. Cameron can do his best to campaign in the final days, but there are many factors out of his control. The International Monetary Fund is set to release a report warning of the economic risks of Brexit two days before the vote. Even a soccer game could change national sentiment—England’s national team will play Slovakia 36 hours before the vote in the European Championships. Britain last voted to stay in the European Union forty years ago. The in/out referendum will likely be the last for a long time. In a plea to the public two days before the vote, Cameron stood in front of his door on 10 Downing Street and said, “Brits don’t quit.” We can only wait to see if they will.
Disclaimer: The author is anonymous pending her employer’s approval to publish under her name.