We’re now only two weeks away (June 23rd) from the people of the United Kingdom voting on whether their country remains a member of the European Union or if it goes its own way and becomes independent once again. Current polls suggest that the “leave” campaign is in the lead by as much as 5%, making the possibility of a Brexit seem very plausible. To many people outside of Europe, this whole situation seems somewhat confusing: Why would Britain want to leave the EU? Does it actually get anything out of doing so? Why is a referendum being held now, of all times?
This actually isn’t the first time a referendum is being held to decide if the UK should be part of a wider European inter-state organization: a similar debate occurred back in 1975 to decide if it should remain in the European Economic Community (EEC) or not. In that case, the British decided by an overwhelming majority (roughly 2/3 of voters) to stay in the EEC. This vote seems different for multiple reasons, most notably that the nature of the organization in question has changed significantly: while the EEC focused solely on encouraging economic integration between European states (which most people were willing to get behind in order to make more money), the European Union is meant to ensure economic and political integration between member states. It’s this greater emphasis on standardized European policies that seems to be a sticking point for those in favour of leaving.
In their eyes, British membership in the EU means giving up British sovereignty over its territory, its economy, and its security. Leaving the EU (which many of these individuals see as being woefully incompetent) would allow the UK to assert control over its own borders, make a lot more money, and better defend itself against terrorists and Russia. The “remain” camp has argued that leaving the EU would actually leave the UK worse off than it is now – it would have greater independence, sure, but it’s so integrated into the European economy and security apparatus that both of these would suffer considerably.
Why would Britain want to leave the EU? Does it actually get anything out of doing so? Why is a referendum being held now, of all times?
There are multiple reasons that a referendum is happening this year in particular. The biggest one, however, is increased euroscepticism (opposition/criticism of the EU) in the UK, with many believing that the organization is becoming increasingly anti-democratic and harming British interests in favour of wider European objectives. This seems to be tied in part to the rise of right-wing parties both in the UK, like the UK Independence Party, as well as throughout Europe, and which tend to attract voters by blaming their economic and social woes on immigrants and other countries instead of actual causes.
This is especially significant in the UK, which had an election last year. In order to get re-elected, Prime Minister David Cameron had to promise that he would hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the EU, and ended up forming a majority government (contrary to predictions that the Conservatives would outright lose or be forced to form another coalition government). Now, however, his government is actually being forced to live up to its promise, much to the delight of those who seem to really dislike being tied to Europe. It seems like the Prime Minister is regretting his electoral promise somewhat at this point, given that he has been quite vocal about his support for staying in the EU, though other Tories (most prominently Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson) have been equally outspoken about wanting the UK to do its own thing again (and in Boris’ case, maybe a little too outspoken, given his comments about Obama’s support for remaining).
So would the UK actually benefit from leaving the EU? While it’s difficult to predict the future (tragically not something we international affairs experts are that skilled at), it’s safe to say that it probably will not, at least going by current evidence. Brexit supporters have been quick to claim that leaving the EU would mean much more wealth being directed towards the UK, though most economists have instead found that the economy will suffer numerous negative effects as a result, such as reducing GDP per household by about £4000 per year until around 2030. Many multinational companies have already withdrawn tens of billions of pounds from the UK in the past few months out of fear that the pound will drop in value if Brexit actually happens. Not to mention that the EU actually provides a lot of funding for scientific research to the UK (around £1 billion per year), as well as for student scholarships – if Britain leaves, all that funding will vanish, and the ill will between it and the EU that would result makes it unlikely that it could be easily renegotiated.
So is leaving the EU really worth it in the end for the UK?
As for security, British intelligence is actually quite reliant on sharing information with its counterparts on the continent regarding potential threats; leaving the EU would jeopardize those arrangements and make the UK more vulnerable. Brexit supporters have unsurprisingly argued that these problems are overblown (or that the “remain” campaign is lying), though the evidence they’ve presented thus far seems lacking.
So is leaving the EU really worth it in the end for the UK? It depends – if you feel that increased sovereignty is worth all the problems that would follow a potential Brexit, like a weakened economy and less security, then I imagine it would seem that way. To everyone else, it probably seems like a terrible idea: exiting the EU would take years of negotiations with the other member states (who will likely not be willing to make especially generous concessions in order to avoid encouraging others from leaving), assuming that the British government opts to negotiate at all. Virtually every economic prediction at the moment is leaning towards the UK economy suffering serious losses from leaving the EU, which is further borne out by the number of firms pulling their investments (and even Brexit supporters have admitted that there will be some initial costs to leaving, though they’ve tried to downplay this).
To top it all off, the UK wouldn’t even become more secure, since security agencies wouldn’t be able to coordinate alongside their European counterparts as well as they can now. In short, leaving the EU would likely leave the UK poorer, less secure, and on worse terms with its neighbours (not to mention everyone who will prioritize trade with the EU over the UK in particular). All it would really gain from the whole ordeal is greater control over border policy, and that would likely just translate to “we can keep out more immigrants now”. Doesn’t really seem worth the effort, does it?
This post originally appeared on Mark’s Policy Musings.