After months of campaigning that appear to have exhausted the British public’s patience, the referendum on the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) continued membership of the European Union (EU) is to take place in two days. Battle lines have hardened, and allegations on both sides of the debate have become more lurid, with those advocating against Brexit claiming that leaving the EU could bring war and Brexit supporters suggesting that remaining in the EU would mean the end of the British monarchy. Most horrifyingly, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot dead last Thursday in an incident that shocked the nation and may be linked to her pro-EU and pro-immigration stance.
Despite the efforts of campaigners on both sides of the issue, the polls suggest the British public remains divided on the question of continued EU membership. The groups supporting continued EU membership include leaders of the UK’s largest companies, the majority of trade unions, scientists, and universities. Small business owners appear to be torn. As far as the major political parties are concerned, the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats support EU membership while the referendum has sparked a row within the deeply divided Conservative Party. Among the general public, people without formal education, who live in England, and are from lower socio-economic classes are more likely to support Brexit while those who have a university degree, live in Scotland or Wales, and are from higher socio-economic classes are more likely to oppose it. The most dramatic cleavage, however, is between younger and older voters—60% of 18–24-year olds are in favour of staying in the EU while 58% of those over 60 years of age support Brexit—suggesting a divide between those who see a future of opportunities in Europe and those who look back fondly to the days before the UK joined the European Community in 1975.
So, with the polls running neck to neck, it is difficult to predict what the actual outcome of the referendum will be. The consequences the UK would face if it exited the EU has been addressed at length by the media coverage of the referendum, but less has been said about what would happen if the UK stays in the EU. There is the implicit assumption that, should this be the case, nothing will change, but that is not necessarily true.
An important element of the Brexit referendum from the very beginning has been British domestic politics. Prime Minister David Cameron first proposed the referendum in a gamble to gain votes from Eurosceptics in 2013, when it seemed likely his Conservative Party would lose the next national election. His failure to negotiate a substantively better deal for the UK in terms of its EU membership and his fervent campaigning against Brexit—which many voters see as insincere, considering the fact that he initiated the referendum in the first place—have had a negative impact on his popularity. A narrow victory in the referendum is unlikely to boost his ratings.
Meanwhile, the popular former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, appears to have staked his bid to become the next leader of the Conservative Party on the referendum by becoming the most prominent face of the campaign to leave the EU. His support for Brexit seems particularly disingenuous, given his previous statements in support of the EU (he even argued in favour of Turkey’s accession to the EU in 2006). A vote in favour of remaining in the EU may lessen his chances of succeeding Cameron as leader, but it may also allow him to appeal to disappointed Eurosceptics within the party, leading to prolonged turmoil in the Conservative Party as it tries to reconcile its pro- and anti-EU factions.
More broadly, a vote to stay in the EU may affect the UK’s relationship with the EU. The UK has always been the ‘reluctant European’ in the union; the sceptical islanders apart from the Continent. It is evidenced in its long-standing refusal to join the single currency or the border control-free Schengen area. Though the British public voted to join the European Community in a referendum in 1975, advocates of Brexit dismiss their initial support for the European project by arguing that the British were only interested in joining the common market, and were duped into becoming part of the political union the EU is comprised of today. Arguments like these have long undermined the legitimacy of the EU in the eyes of the British. A vote in favour of continued membership of the EU at a difficult time—when Europe is trying to cope with both the aftermath of the eurozone crisis that devastated its economy and the refugee crisis—could go a long way towards legitimising EU governance in one of its most Eurosceptic member states.
Katharina Obermeier is a Research Officer at the Global Economic Governance Programme in Oxford. She will be starting a PhD in Government at Cornell University in the fall.
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