From the outside, the debate about whether the UK should leave the European Union is confusing. Frankly, it’s pretty perplexing from the inside, too. Voters go to the polls on Thursday, June 23, to make a momentous decision about whether Britain should exit the EU—a so-called “Brexit,” with far-reaching consequences for the country, continent, and even the global economy.
It’s unpredictable because voting intentions won’t follow party lines. The UK’s Conservative government is deeply split on the issue, with prime minister David Cameron in favor of the “remain” option but some of his closest colleagues, including former London mayor Boris Johnson and justice minister Michael Gove, at the forefront of the “leave” campaign.
There are also plenty of people on the left who want to leave. The Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has offered only lukewarm support to staying in the EU, which could dampen turnout from a group thought to be core to the ”remain” constituency.
There’s passion, rhetoric, and fear on both sides. Ultimately, the vote will come down to three main issues:
The economic impact of EU integration is one of the “leave” campaign’s big talking points, but it’s actually the “remain” camp’s strongest argument. The weight of opinion from economists and analysts at the UK Treasury, the IMF, the OECD, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, among other institutions, is that leaving the EU would harm the British economy. They disagree on the degree of the potential damage from a Brexit, but the direction is clear.
Why? Primarily, because of trade. A far larger share of the UK’s exports go to the EU than vice-versa. Leaving the EU’s free-trade bloc puts a big chunk of these goods and services at risk, were tariffs or other barriers to be imposed on them. (European leaders don’t seem keen to cut friendly deals with a post-Brexit Britain.) From banks to carmakers, many multinational businesses say that Brexit would put jobs at risk.
Markets have moved in lockstep with the polls, with the pound, bonds, and stocks rallying when the prospects for “remain” improve, and dropping when “leave” looks more likely. British funds have lost a fifth of their value—a fall of nearly $300 billion—over the past year (paywall). A recent poll of economists found that most believed the pound would plummet against the dollar after Brexit, to levels last seen 30 years ago.
As Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, has said about the likely slump in sterling: “So what?” The pro-Brexit camp has rather effectively dismissed experts’ gloomy forecasts as “scaremongering.” Indeed, the share of people who say their personal finances will be unaffected by Brexit, despite all the warnings, has consistently been higher than those who believe they will be worse off, although the gap is narrowing. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Gove from the “leave” campaign.
Immigration has vied with the economy as the most important issue to referendum voters. Those who feel most strongly about migration lean toward “leave.” The official pro-Brexit campaign dubs the EU’s immigration rules “immoral, expensive, and out of control.”
Why? Along with the free movement of goods and services across borders, EU law provides that citizens are free to live and work in any member state. As the bloc expanded to poorer countries in the east, Britain’s relatively buoyant economy and job market—at 5%, the UK’s unemployment rate currently sits at a 10-year-low—has attracted a large number of migrants from places like Poland, the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria. More than 40% of migrants to the UK from the EU’s newest members come to the country looking for work but without a job in hand when they arrive.
The current immigration regime is unfair, Brexit supporters argue, because low-skilled workers from the EU without a definite job can come to the UK unchecked, while the same doesn’t apply to their counterparts from outside the EU. More galling, however, is the feeling among locals who compete with new arrivals that they are taking jobs, pushing down wages, and consuming public services at the expense of established communities. If the immigrants come from other EU countries, there’s little the UK can do about it.
But for all the talk of fairness, many in the “leave” camp aren’t as concerned with who is coming into the country as much as their numbers. They have latched onto a campaign pledge by Cameron back in 2010 to limit annual net migration to the “tens of thousands,” claiming that EU membership is what’s behind the failure to meet it. Net immigration hasn’t been that low since the 1990s, so satisfying the goal would entail drastic cuts to immigration from both inside and outside the EU.
In a recent survey, around two-thirds of Brits said they aren’t willing to sacrifice any of their personal income in return for tighter border controls, which is at odds with most forecasts for the post-Brexit economy. And for all of the accusations about scaremongering that “leave” campaigners lob at the “remain” campaign, they themselves have come in for criticism for divisive rhetoric, with dubious claims that Turkey is about to join the EU (highly unlikely), unsavory advertisements that demonize refugees from the Middle East, and absurd warnings of mass sex attacks by migrant men due to their “cultural” differences with British society.
After the June 16 murder of parliamentarian Jo Cox by a man who declared “death to traitors, freedom for Britain,” the harsher anti-immigration messages of the “leave” campaign have been toned down. Cox campaigned vigorously for refugees’ rights and was a staunch supporter of the UK staying in the EU.
For voters who haven’t yet chosen a side, studies show that gut instinct will play a big role. For as many as a third of voters who are undecided, that crucial factor will probably prove decisive in the privacy of the polling booth.
Why? For many, this referendum has become a question not about what will happen to the UK if it leaves the EU, but about what kind of people voters want to be.
Remainers generally believe in community, and tend to define it as broadly as Europe, or even more globally than that. They give primacy to the need for countries to work together. They believe that ceding a certain amount of control leads to freedom: of movement, trade, and ideas. They value their autonomy—for example, the ability to live where they choose—and see that the corollary of this is to give the same rights to others. They fear Britain outside of the EU will become a closed fortress.
Leavers fear that Britain inside the EU lacks sovereignty and control of its own destiny. They believe in community, too, and define it as their friends, family, neighbors, and compatriots. They believe that seizing control of their governance is the only way to achieve what’s important for the country: staying strong, protecting jobs, and directing trade. They value their autonomy—for example, the ability to earn a living from a job they choose, in a country where they feel safe, surrounded by those whose ways of life they most identify with.
The debate over facts and figures is ugly enough, so when existential questions about national identity emerge it gets nastier still. Unlike in a regular election, the ramifications of this one-off referendum will last for decades, generations even. Whichever way the vote goes this week, a big part of the country will feel aggrieved, and that’s the only outcome in all of this that is a sure thing.