Britain and the EU: To Leave or Not to Leave?

Should Britain leave the EU? Anthony Comeau gives a rundown of the situation.

On Jun. 23, 2016, all people who are eligible to vote in the United Kingdom; U.K, nationals living abroad who have voted in the past fifteen years; citizens of Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta, will answer a single question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

Simple enough, right? Not quite. Beyond a possible path to put an end to contentious economic and political disputes ongoing since the U.K.’s last vote whether to leave the EU in 1975, the forthcoming referendum serves as a nation-wide glance in the mirror, a reflection on the British identity itself. What does it mean to be a Briton? A European? How do these terms shape each other and vie for attention?   

Although the composite history and nuances of these questions are beyond the scope of this article, for those NYU Shanghai students who have little background in British affairs of state (perhaps the majority), let us attempt to dissect the politics behind the simple query.

For our purposes, I’ll name two general camps: the ins and the outs. According to The Telegraph, as of Mar. 21, based on the average of the last six major polls, about 51 percent of Britons believe the United Kingdom should remain an EU member while 49 percent of the people favor “Brexit” (a British Exit from the EU). Since Oct. 2015, the ins have maintained a steady lead over the outs. However, since February, public opinion polls have showed the British electorate is divided nearly fifty-fifty on its European identity.

The Ins

The official cross-party campaign to remain in the European Union is “Britain Stronger in Europe.” With the support of British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, former Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, businessman and philanthropist, Sir Richard Branson, MP and businessman, George Osborne, author and TV personality, Baroness Karren Brady, businessman Stuart Rose, and British Cabinet Member Theresa May, the ins believe that remaining in the EU benefits the British economy, allows for freedom of movement in Europe, ensures security, and guarantees the U.K. greater leadership in world affairs. To the ins, leaving would restrict free trade, harm business, and send relations with the Continent back to an era without the collective stability the European Union safeguards.

The Outs

There are several movements vying for the title of the official “out campaign.” According to the BBC, the Electoral Commission will “judge each applicant’s merits on the basis of a range of criteria, such as level of cross-party support, campaign tactics and organisational capacity,” and by mid-April name a winner for the position. As of Mar. 24, there exist two major contenders:

  1. Vote Leave” maintains that the deal Prime Minister Cameron struck with Brussels in February as to how Britain’s member status could be improved were she to remain in the politico-economic union does not adequately meet the needs of British people. Backed by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, former cabinet member who resigned this March, Iain Duncan, MP Michael Grove, and Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, “Vote Leave” believes exiting the EU will save Britain financial strain and would allow the island nation to invest in its National Health Service (NHS) and the sciences.  
  2. Grassroots Out,” founded by the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and led by British Members of Parliament Peter Bone, Kate Hoey, and British Member of the European Parliament, Nigel Farage, holds that U.K. membership of the EU obstructs British democracy, and that Brexit is the only to solution to the Eurocratic quagmire in which Britain has lost her sovereignty. “Grassroots Out” is an umbrella organization that also includes “Leave.EU.”

What’s the deal, Britain?

As Peter Apps of the British newspaper The Independent explains, even if the United Kingdom remains an EU member state, its relationship with the European Union would still change thanks to a deal Prime Minister Cameron struck with Brussels last February. Though Prime Minister Cameron supports holding a referendum, he hoped negotiating a deal, which would take effect upon a vote to remain an EU member, would put some eurosceptics at ease.

The full text of the EU’s “special status” for Britain details the agreement in its entirety. I will try below to highlight its important implications and lines of interest regarding the following areas: immigration, the Eurozone, and U.K. Sovereignty.

Immigration: The deal grants any “Host Member States” (those taking in immigrants), two noteworthy powers:

  1. That Member States may “take action to… address cases of contracting or maintaining marriages of convenience with third-country nationals for the purpose of making use of free movement as a route for regularizing unlawful stay in a Member State…”; and, 
  2. That Host Member States may utilize “the necessary restrictive measures to protect themselves against individuals whose personal conduct is likely to represent a genuine and serious threat to public policy or security.” One might ask under what circumstances this right applies. The deal offers these lines in reply:

All Member States may take into account past conduct of the individual concerned and the threat may not always need to be imminent. Even in the absence of a previous criminal conviction, Member States may act on preventative grounds, so long as they are specific to the individual concerned.

Questions of European and British identities aside, Prime Minister Cameron sees European Union membership as a mechanism to better control the influx of refugees from Syria, Sudan, and Afghanistan into Britain. Agreed upon in 2003, Le Touquet Treaty between Britain and France allows both nations to conduct passport checks on each other’s soil on both sides of the English Channel. The French do this in Dover and the British in Calais. This technically means that the U.K. border lies in France and the French border in the U.K.. The British government will spend the equivalent of 17 million USD on building fences and monitoring devices in Calais in the hope of reducing the chance migrants, and refugees reach British soil to claim asylum.

The U.K. has said it will accept 20,000 refugees into its borders by 2020. To put this into comparison, Lebanon, which is smaller, less wealthy, and enjoys nowhere near the number of social services and the level of infrastructure as Britain, has taken in an estimated 1.5 million.

The Eurozone:

The Treaties, the binding agreements between EU member states, under Protocol 15, already omit the U.K. from adopting the euro. With this reality, Prime Minister Cameron’s deal declares that “[e]mergency and crisis measures designed to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area will not entail budgetary responsibility for the Member States whose currency is not the euro.” In other words, in contrast to Germany and France, Britain will not be called upon by law to bail out the weaker Eurozone economies.  

U.K. Sovereignty:

According to the deal, the United Kingdom, given its unique situation under the Treaties, “is not committed to further political integration into the European Union,” and that this status will be accounted for in the Treaties “at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States.”

The reason for this aspect of the deal is the European Council’s 1983 Solemn Declaration on European Union, which held as primary objective that “the Heads of State or Government [of the EU]… confirm their commitment to progress towards an ever closer union among the peoples and Member States of the European Community.” To many in Britain, this line––in all its uncertainty and potentiality––paves the way for incremental reduction of British self-determination, and perhaps the ultimate fall (though unlikely) of the United Kingdom as she stands. In addition to this phrasing, Cameron’s deal also creates a “red card system,” meaning “EU legislation can be reconsidered with the support of 55 percent of the 28 member nations.”

One could write a volume on the logistics and evidence (or lack thereof) behind the arguments for and against Brexit, but this article will not overwhelm you with these. In short, the situation boils down to the ins, the outs, and how they view Cameron’s deal.

A European Identity?

In 2012, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. In its official announcement, the Nobel Committee declared,

The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.

Indeed, no one can deny the transformation Europe has undergone in the last seventy years since World War II. In Mar. 2015, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, spoke to the UN Security Council in reflection:

Our Union, the European Union, is built on the same values, the same vision of a cooperative world order which led to the foundation of the United Nations, seventy years ago. In seventy years, the threats to peace have evolved continuously. So must we.

Here, the word evolve is key. Whether or not Britain decides to leave, its relationship with the European Union will change. Some say that if it is to live in peace, the world must become more collective so that supranational organizations like the European Union will become the norm in the next hundred or so years. The daunting threats of climate change, continued war, and rapid technological advancement demand international consensus, regardless of whether it is bureaucratic, slow, and inefficient. Understood in this light, Brexit is but a growing pain of the European continent’s inevitable oneness.

However, few things in history are inevitable or can ever be decided. The question now is whether Britain will have a voice and a vote in the greater European experiment. Will she reaffirm the conviction that multinational, quasi-governmental unions may succeed? Or will she back out, perhaps mirroring Norway as a non-member, yet belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA)?

It is the civic duty of the participating electorate to read these arguments carefully, to consider the implications of their vote for or against Brexit, and to keep in mind their history of empire and colonialism, as well as the British commitment to democracy and peace and prosperity for Europe. So,

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

The decision rests with the people.

This article was written by Anthony Comeau. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Arshaun Darabnia

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