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To Leave or Not to Leave
Britain's referendum on EU membership looms ahead
By Dominic James Madar | NO. 24 JUNE 16, 2016

Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, starts his Vote Leave bus campaign in Truro on May 11 (XINHUA)

On June 23 the United Kingdom (UK) will hold a referendum on whether to continue its membership of the European Union (EU). A referendum is a question put to a country's citizens in which a "Yes" or "No" answer can be given. Thus, the British public has the opportunity to sever ties with the supranational body and take the unprecedented step of leaving the union.

The vote appears to hang on a knife-edge, with a YouGov poll conducted on May 31 putting both those who intended to vote to remain and leave in a dead heat on 41 percent apiece. Meanwhile, an Observer/Opinium poll on June 4 put leave on 43 percent, compared to remain on 40.

So what are the key factors that could sway voters in the referendum? According to Sandra Kröger, a professor at the University of Exeter and an expert on EU politics, it will depend on the demographic of voters, particularly in regard to their age and social status. She told Beijing Review, "The economy and migration are important issues, but they might in fact work in different ways for different voters."

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn kicks off a bus tour to rally support for staying in the EU in London on May 10 (XINHUA)

An awkward member

The UK has endured a brusque relationship with the EU ever since it joined the European Economic Community (EEC)—a precursor to the EU—43 years ago. A distinguished, yet awkward participant of the EU club, Britain's status as an island, positioned on the western periphery of the mainland is inescapable.

The former glory of the global empire upon which the sun never set and bitter feuds with European rivals only add to the sense of detachment. Britain could be considered as culturally adrift of the continent as it is geographically.

To compound matters, Britain was not part of the initial group of countries—France, West Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxemburg—who formed the EEC in 1957. In 1963, Britain's belated attempt to join faced the indignity of a French veto, as then French President Charles de Gaulle feared the UK was an "American Trojan horse." His belief in a pervasive American interest, if Britain was to be granted membership, contributed to the delay of British accession, which finally took place in 1973.

Since then, Britain is one of only two states to be granted an opt out of the Schengen Area, a region in which there are no border controls between the 26 EU members signed up, and to have abstained from the euro project to share a currency and monetary union with 17 other EU members.


Britain Stronger in Europe, often referred to as Remain, is the campaign supported by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who alluded to the UK's unique status in the union in a speech in London on April 22. "We're in the single market; we're not part of the single currency. We're able to travel and live and work in other European countries, but we've maintained our borders."

During a Sky News debate on June 2 Cameron claimed that, "Britain doesn't succeed when we quit, we succeed when we get stuck in." He asserted that a British exit would make the country and therefore households poorer, leading to fewer jobs, lower wages and less income.

Cameron warned of the potential dangers of leaving, stating that this was his duty as prime minister. He implied the EU helped to prevent war on the continent, which could become more likely if Britain left: "On our continent in the last century, twice we had an enormous bloodbath between our nations."

Chris Bryant, a Member of Parliament and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, said to Beijing Review, "I'd say we achieve far more through a common endeavor from whatever camp, than by going alone."

According to Bryant, the UK would regret it if it turned its back on Europe and chose isolation, describing the very conservative governments in Poland and Hungary as disturbing. "I think Europe and the EU being a beacon of sane, sensible equality measures is one of the most important things we can provide to the world," he argued.

Outside Britain, many national leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping, have stated their preference for the UK to remain in the EU. Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press conference concerning China's stance on Brexit (British exit), "China has always been supportive of the European integration process... We sincerely hope that Britain and the EU can handle their differences properly."

American President Barack Obama delivered a speech on April 22 in London to unequivocally back British EU membership. Obama claimed that, "the single market brings extraordinary economic benefits to the United Kingdom. And that ends up being good for America," in reference to the close bond shared by the two nations.

He was also bullish on the U.S. strategy to negotiate trade deals with the EU bloc rather than the UK individually. He said, "Maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-U.S. trade agreement, but it's not going to happen anytime soon, and the UK is going to be in the back of the queue." Obama cited the inefficiency of trying to do piecemeal agreements as central to this.


In spite of many institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, warning of the risks of leaving, and heads of state throwing their weight behind Remain, the Brexit campaign has kept the fight competitive. Boris Johnson, a Tory (Conservative Party) big-hitter and former Mayor of London, outlined his arguments in a speech at the headquarters of the Vote Leave campaign on May 9.

"We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through that door," urged Johnson, who said the institution had undergone a "spectacular metamorphosis in the last 30 years."

"To keep insisting that the EU is about economics is like saying the Italian Mafia is interested in olive oil and real estate. It is true, but profoundly uninformative about the real aims of that organization," he told his audience, adding that, "It is still becoming ever more centralizing, interfering and anti-democratic."

Johnson criticized the EU for seriously compromising British sovereignty. "The loss of democratic control is spiritually damaging, and socially risky," he claimed. He also dismissed its economic benefits, saying, "It is absurd that Britain—historically a great free-trading nation—has been unable for 42 years to do a free trade deal with Australia, New Zealand, China, India and America."

Liam Taylor, a Brexit campaigner, also put forward economic and political arguments to leave Europe. "At a time when every other part of the world is growing rapidly, Britain has found itself locked into a declining protectionist block in the EU," he told Beijing Review. Like Johnson, he suggested Britain would have more flexibility to trade with large developing economies, such as India and China, if it left the institution.

One of the most pertinent points for Brexiters is the lack of migration control that exists for EU member states, owing to the free movement of people across the EU. Taylor said Brexit would allow Britain to have a fairer immigration system that "no longer discriminates against skilled non-EU workers and which is able to attract the best talent from around the world."

Slamming the rigidity of the EU, he said that owing to its creaking bureaucratic structures it "has shown itself to be an outdated relic of the last century. It's an analogue union in a digital age."

Taylor further criticized the EU's undemocratic nature and blamed the ongoing euro crisis, mishandling of the migration crisis, and weak response to Russian interference in the Ukraine on EU incompetence.

If Britain left, it "will be able to play a leading role in creating a better, more prosperous, more democratic Europe," he told Beijing Review.

The unknown

Since no country has ever left the EU, predicting its potential impact on both the UK and Europe is extremely hazardous. Kröger admitted it was difficult to foresee, though she said, "I think the UK has more to lose from leaving [the EU] than the EU has from losing the UK." From a policy perspective she suggested, "The EU might become more protectionist and less neo-liberal," though she stressed that the impact would vary from state to state depending on how much they traded with the UK.

Brexit could also trigger a continental crisis, creating a domino effect in which other EU states followed Britain to the exit door. Kröger acknowledged that there has been a clear rise in Euroscepticism in recent years, telling Beijing Review that, "Sometimes, the rise can be linked to actual EU policies," but that sometimes, it has "much more to do with how domestic entrepreneurs frame debates." Alternatively, a vote to remain, particularly by a wide margin, could galvanize confidence in the EU once more.

Campaigners on both sides are running out of time to convince people who have yet to make up their minds on which way to vote. In such a close contest, these voters are likely to be pivotal to the final outcome. Whatever the result, the effects on Britain, Europe, and possibly the world, will be momentous.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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