“This is the most important election in a generation,” says every political pundit in the United States regarding the looming Trump vs. Clinton standoff in November. In fact, that’s been said about every presidential election in living memory.
For the imminent British referendum, that statement might actually be true. The result of the vote, scheduled for Thursday, June 23, on whether to remain within or leave the European Union, will shape the lives of Brits for decades.
To the shock of a nation, Jo Cox, a 41-year-old member of Parliament, was killed near Leeds June 16. Her pro-EU and pro-immigrant opinions apparently set off the murderer. The referendum debate was paused until the beginning of the week.
Living in London might prompt one to believe that the likelihood of a Brexit is extremely low. Multicultural and cosmopolitan Londoners are firm “Remainers,” supporting continued membership of the EU more convincingly than any other English region. However, recent national polling data has shown the Vote Leave campaign marginally ahead of Britain Stronger in Europe campaign.
I just came back from the North Eastern university town of Durham, where opinion is far more divided than back in the capital. Durham is placed in the former industrial heartland of Britain, which has experienced a higher rate of unemployment relative to the rest of the country. As I walked around the bustling market town, Vote Leave campaigners were all over the place, carrying enormous banners and spouting lines about the constraints of EU trade deals.
The referendum has revealed a divided Britain. The youth vote is significantly in favor of remaining in the union — 61 percent support the EU compared to 18 percent who want to leave it — while those over the age of 60 overwhelmingly lean towards leaving.
Among the majority of students at Durham University, the Vote Leave campaign is viewed as something of a joke. However, one student admitted he worried that the Remain camp had failed to adequately convey the benefits of EU membership, instead resorting to scare tactics by emphasizing the uncertainty that surrounds the possibility of a Brexit. Similarly, voters with higher education qualifications would prefer to remain, as would those in Northern Ireland and Scotland, compared to England. Scottish and Northern Irish voters see power in Brussels as an effective counterweight to control exercised by parliament in London.
It took Britain 12 years and three applications to gain membership of the then-EEC (European Economic Community). Our first two attempts to join were summarily vetoed, in 1963 and 1967, by the Anglo-averse Charles De Gaulle, who feared that British entry into the union was a “Trojan Horse” for American interests. Then the United Kingdom was considered the sick man of Europe, with staggering unemployment and worrisome inflation. As Edward Heath’s government finally signed the accession agreement to the EEC, in 1973, a three-day working week was being implemented across the nation to conserve electricity. Back then, the country was on its knees. Today, the government claims that more than three million British jobs are linked to our significant exports to EU countries. The British Treasury estimates places long-term economic cost of the Brexit at £2,600 to £5200 ($3,800 to $7,500) per year per household.
If the risks are so great, why then is a Brexit such an attractive prospect for so many? Much of the British euro-skepticism is borne out of anti-immigrant nativist sentiment.
The U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) — once a fringe group of no-hopers dismissed as a “bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists” by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2006, when he was leader of the opposition — has spearheaded the Leave Campaign. Its rise, tinged with nationalist rhetoric not dissimilar to that of Donald Trump, has been meteoric. In the 2015 General Election, it amassed more than three million votes, making it the third largest party by vote share. The growth of UKIP twinned with the Eurosceptic backbenchers of the Conservative Party (the reigning party of the center right) prompted PM Cameron to promise an “in-out referendum,” provided he was able to win a majority in parliament in the elections last year. To the surprise of most political pundits, Cameron and his Conservative Party did just that. Cameron has been forced to tread a delicate path between supporting the effort to remain in the EU alongside the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and appeasing the furthest right wings of his party which hunger for a more independent Britain.
The Vote Leave campaign’s greatest gripe with the European Union is the fear of immigrants. It has vocally criticized the EU’s policy on freedom of movement, which allows any citizen of a member country to live and work in any other member country. It claims that migrants, predominantly from Eastern European member states, abuse this policy to take advantage of the benefits offered by Britain’s generous welfare system, including the National Health Service. However, official statistics show that so-called “benefit tourists” make up a miniscule proportion of Britain’s total welfare outlays. Furthermore, the Leave Campaign has benefitted enormously from the European migrant crisis, which they have presented as a pressing threat to Britain’s borders.
A further Leave Campaign grievance is that of loss of sovereignty. “Brexiteers,” as they’ve come to be known, bemoan the fact that the bureaucratic quagmire that is the European government in Brussels is responsible for making rules that apply to Britain. Figures for the proportion of British laws made by the EU vary wildly. Nigel Farage, the charismatic UKIP leader, claims that the number is as high as 70 percent, while Remain campaigners have cited only 7 percent. However, it is important to take into account that a large number of these laws have little bearing on Britain. Take, for example, regulations concerning the quality of olive oil, a product of little importance to the UK economy.
President Barack Obama, Christine Lagarde, the OECD, the Bank of England and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, have all warned against the dangers of Britain leaving the European Union.
Juncker was so blunt that he practically issued a threat. “Deserters will not be welcomed back with open arms,” he said in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde.
While the European Union has its drawbacks — an unelected executive body in the form of the commission, for example — the Leave Campaign is formed around empty promises. Nobody is able to define what Britain’s relationship with the EU would be, should a Brexit actually occur. Leave campaigners claim the U.K. could have a relationship like that of Norway, Switzerland or Iceland, all of which have not joined the EU.
There is no guarantee that such an arrangement would be permitted by the jilted union, or even possible. After all, Britain is several times the size of all these countries.