By Matt Evans, British Ambassador to the EST.

uk-eu

Britain’s referendum over EU membership is one of the key events in European politics this year. Despite the importance of this, there remains a great deal of confusion over several vital aspects of the referendum. In this guide, I hope to answer some of the basic questions surrounding the upcoming vote.

So what exactly is happening?

On Thursday 23rd of June the UK is holding a referendum on whether it should remain or leave the European Union.

Why is this happening?

Prime Minister David Cameron promised in early 2013 that if the Conservative Party won the 2015 General Election, a referendum over Britain’s EU membership would be held. This was as a response to growing calls from members of his own party the Conservatives, as well as to fend off growing support from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), who both believe that it is time that the British public had their say over the UK’s relationship with the EU. This will mark the first time since 1975, two years after it joined, that the UK will have a referendum over its EU membership.

So, why do some people want to leave?

Leave campaigners in favour of a “Brexit” cite numerous reasons that Britain should withdraw from the EU. Perhaps the most recurring issue of the leave campaign has been over immigration, with campaigners critical of the EU’s freedom of movement principle, citing that it is only once the UK withdraws from the EU it can control immigration levels. Other prominent issues include scepticism of the democratic transparency of EU institutions, the excess transferral of powers from Westminster to Brussels, and that Britain receives no obvious benefit from EU membership, despite the cost.

Who is campaigning for Brexit?

The official campaign for a British exit is headed by the cross-party organisation Vote Leave.  Domestically, the governing Conservative Party is split, with senior members such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove campaigning for Brexit. UKIP, led by Nigel Farage are also campaigning for Brexit.

            Outside of the UK, Brexit has gained support from figures such as Donald Trump and National Front leader Marine Le Pen, with many commentators writing that Brexit would suit the interests of Vladimir Putin.

Who is campaigning for Britain to remain a member?

The Electoral Commission designated Britain Stronger in Europe as the official remain organisation in April of this year. Proponents of remain are more widespread than leave, with Prime Minister David Cameron, the majority of the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, and the Liberal Democrats all campaigning against a withdrawal.

            The bulk of international leaders are in favour of Britain staying in the EU. Most prominently, Barack Obama delivered a speech in April that urged UK voters to vote to remain, stating that the UK would go to “the back of the queue” of US trade deals if Brexit occurred. Moreover, the likes of Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping have publicly stated that it is in Britain’s interests to remain.

So what is the likely outcome?

Since the announcement of the referendum in February, the Remain campaign has spent the bulk of the time in the lead. However, this has changed in recent weeks, with Remain’s slender advantage shortening. In fact, the most recent opinion polls conducted by YouGov and ICM reported that the Leave campaign has a lead of 4-5 percentage points.[1] Yet after the huge errors made by polling companies in the General Election last year, the polls are being treated with increased scepticism from the British public, and therefore it would be naïve to read too much into them.

            Regardless of the recent poll leads for Leave, betting companies continue to state that remain is the most likely outcome, citing numerous factors including such as that in past referendums British voters have backed the status quo, and that voters who currently state that they are undecided are more likely to vote to remain on polling day. Overall, the probable result at the minute looks too close to call.

Who is likely to vote for what?

The most apparent gap when looking at the statistics is the significant generational divide in voting intentions. Research by the London School of Economics concluded that of those certain to vote, 75% of the age group 18-24 stated that they were in favour of staying in the EU. This is in stark comparison to those aged 65+, where only 44% of those surveyed indicated that they wanted the UK to remain.[2] While the support for remain amongst younger voters is of course welcome for remain campaigners, it is questionable to what extent younger voters will be able to swing the overall result, due to the fact that elderly voters are far more likely to turn out than younger ones. From the same survey, it was revealed that only 50% of 18-24s were certain to vote, in comparison to 68% of over 65s.[3] This has generated a sense of anxiousness amongst remain campaigners, with former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock claiming that the UK could opt for “Brexit by default” if younger voters fail to turn out in sufficient numbers.[4]

            As well as younger voters, other demographics with a higher tendency towards Remain include those with a university degree, from a higher social class, and living in Scotland, Wales, and large urban areas.

What would the implications of Brexit be?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer and one’s response largely depends on what stance they take on the referendum. Remain campaigners have regularly stressed that if the UK were to vote to leave it would seriously damage the UK economy, triggering a loss of jobs, investment and potentially a recession. Those on the side of leave accuse this to be scaremongering, stating, rather idealistically, that the UK would not suffer economically and, free of EU legislation, would be able to swiftly negotiate trade deals with major powers like the US and China. Yet this is too optimistic an argument, as evident with the fact that the value of the pound has already fallen substantially since the announcement of the referendum, highlighting the economic instability and uncertainty that Brexit would cause.

            However, the greatest potential implication of Brexit would be geopolitical. If the UK were to vote to leave, this would significantly aid the rise of fellow anti-EU parties across the continent, such as the National Front in France and the Danish People’s Party, and would give these movements more momentum in calls for their own EU referendum. Therefore, in effect, Brexit could add fuel to the fire of an already substantial anti-EU sentiment and trigger a chain reaction of states attempting to withdraw from Brussels, or at least a repatriation of powers. While it is incredibly unlikely, Brexit could potentially be viewed as the start of the unravelling of the whole European Union project.

Summary

The EU referendum on the 23rd June will require the British electorate to make the most important political decision in more than a generation. Despite the overwhelming calls from prominent politicians, businesses and organisations to remain, at present the outcome looks too close to call, with the result likely to be determined by who turns out on the day.  Regardless, its impact will be profound, and could in future be viewed as a fundamental turning point in modern British history.

[1] Faulconbridge, G. & Bruce, A., “Out campaign take 4-5 percentage point lead – YouGov and ICM polls”, Reuters, 6/6/2016 Available at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-icm-idUKKCN0YS0XO (accessed: 7/6/2016)

[2] Sloam, J., “The Generation Gap: How Young Voters view the UK’s Referendum”, The London School of Economics: British Politics and Policy, 6/4/16. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-generation-gap-how-young-voters-view-the-uks-referendum/ (accessed: 7/6/2016)

[3] Ibid

[4] BBC News, “EU referendum: Kinnock urges young voters to prevent ‘Brexit by default’ BBC, 4/6/2016. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36447926 (Accessed: 7/6/2016)

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