Will Britain Stay In The EU?

A British Union flag and a European Union flag in London, Britain February 18, 2016. Britain could break with the union. Reuters/Toby Melville

This piece was initially published on the Carnegie Europe website

A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe's role in the world.

Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre

Yes, absolutely, although the result of the forthcoming referendum on Britain's EU membership will be closer than that of the in-or-out vote in 1975, when 67 percent of Brits voted to remain in the common market.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, supported by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Home Secretary Theresa May, needs to appeal to the Euroskeptic Conservative heartlands and neutralize the 100-plus Tory backbenchers who favor a Brexit regardless of the deal to renegotiate Britain's EU membership achieved by the prime minister.

The leaders of the opposition Labour Party, the centrist Liberal Democrats, and the separatist Scottish National Party need to appeal to their respective voters. It is a big plus that unlike in 1975, the Scottish nationalists today are fully in favor of staying in the EU. The unions, most of business, academia, and the intellectual class also want to remain. The campaign to leave is divided and leaderless, with Nigel Farage of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) a busted flush. The Euroskeptic press is not as influential as it thinks.

But it would be foolish not to recognize the inherent dangers of referenda (ask the Irish!) and the widespread antiestablishment feeling in the UK. There is no room for complacency. The campaign to remain should concentrate on the benefits that the UK gains from the EU and not on the fear of exclusion. But at present it does not look like there will be a positive visionary campaign.

The saddest thing of all, however, is that just like in 1975, the upcoming referendum will not end the poisonous EU debate in the UK. And just as the Labour Party suffered deep divisions a few years after the 1975 referendum, so the Conservatives could split even before the current parliamentary term ends in 2020. Plus ça change.

Thomas de Waal, Senior associate at Carnegie Europe


These are unpredictable times. Britain has not been immune to the wave of political insurgency storming Europe. The English nationalists of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 12.6 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election (but only one seat, due to Britain's peculiar voting system). The rank outsider Jeremy Corbyn captured the leadership of the opposition Labour Party.

And yet, the natural conservatism of the British voter will decide the vote in favor of the EU in the forthcoming referendum on the UK's membership, just as the quieter unionist voters in Scotland won the day in the September 2014 independence referendum there.

There are two EUs in Britain. One is bashed in the Sun and the Daily Mail every day for ripping off Britain, sending over hordes of unwanted migrants, and forcing Brits to eat regulation square tomatoes. The other is so deeply embedded in the UK's legislation, business, trade, and foreign policy that most people do not notice it's there.

The referendum campaign will be all about reminding ordinary people about the second EU and how it is 30 years too late to leave it behind. The idea of Brexit is a wish and a prayer, and British voters are not romantics.

Andrew Duff, visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre

As in all referenda, the British electorate will be facing more than one question in the vote on Britain's EU membership expected later in 2016. First, the official question on the ballot paper: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" Second, the unofficial question boasted by the British prime minister: What do you make of my famous renegotiation of the U.K.'s EU membership? And a third question, inevitably: Do you like the current government or not?

If voters stick to the first question, the answer will be "remain"—not least because the "leave" campaigners turn out to be not so serious people.

If voters plump for the second question, the answer will translate into "leave." Prime Minister David Cameron's frolic has been variously marginal, futile, spurious and damaging not only to the British national interest but also to the EU as a whole. He has dissatisfied both pro- and anti-Europeans. Quite a remarkable feat.

On the third question, there are of course mixed opinions. But remember that the ruling Conservatives achieved only 37 percent of the popular vote (on a two-thirds turnout ) at the May 2015 general election—and most of that was decidedly Euroskeptic.

István Hegedűs, Chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society

At least, it should.

Britain, the awkward partner of the other EU member states and the European institutions, has suffered for three decades under a distorted European agenda. Euroskeptic rumors in popular culture and the boulevard media, nationalist economic and budgetary perceptions at the elite level, and a widespread feeling of superiority about the Westminster model compared with the European democratic project have dominated domestic debates in Britain. It is hard for the "in" campaigners to argue in favor of the EU in an idealistic manner given the national context and Europe's current shaky management of the migration crisis.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's jump into the dark with the idea of a referendum on the U.K.'s EU membership pushed other pro-European and pro-British governments and politicians to the wall. At the same time, tricky populist leaders, especially in the Eastern part of the EU, used the conflict to look important at the European level.

Politically, a general deal on the terms of Britain's EU membership is necessary. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the union's six founding states want to deepen their integration, pulling some willing countries along. With or without Britain, a move forward—toward an ever-closer union—can save the EU in the long run.

Denis MacShane, former UK minister for Europe

David Cameron and most Conservatives have spent 16 years since 2000 criticizing and denigrating the EU. Now the UK prime minister may have only 16 weeks before a possible referendum in June 2016 to persuade the British people they should forget what he said and instead agree with pro-EU politicians that the EU is good for Britain.

If the mass-circulation press continues to rubbish the symbolic and largely cosmetic concessions Cameron has obtained in his effort to renegotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership, it will be hard to defeat Brexit. Business is finally waking up to the threat, but a parade of elite business leaders, elite politicians, elite bankers, and other hated London elites telling British voters to opt to stay in the EU may not be sufficiently persuasive.

For 16 years, a battery of Euroskeptic loudspeakers has been proclaiming that EU membership means there are too many immigrants in the U.K., that the eurozone economies are rubbish compared with Britain's, and that the U.K. House of Commons is no longer the supreme master of Britain's universe because of the EU.

All these points are not changed by Cameron's rushed last-minute deal, which seems to be fraying at the edges. The opposition Labour Party is no longer a powerful voice for Europe, and the centrist Liberal Democrats have vanished. So all depends on Cameron's PR skills. These are impressive but may not be enough to prevent his own opportunistic plebiscite from ending in Britain's isolation from Europe after a Brexit vote.

David McAllister, Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations With the United States

Peace, freedom, and prosperity: these are the goals that have brought Europeans together. Europeans are working as partners for stability. A united Europe emerged from the chaos and fractures of the Second World War. A united Europe grew after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The U.K. fought for the freedom of Europe. Europe as we know it today would not exist without Britain. It would be a great loss for other Europeans not to have their British partners among them to push for democracy, bring stability to Europe's neighborhood, and increase prosperity for European citizens through economic openness.

Europe is stronger together than apart. By being united, Europe can better protect its common values and create more opportunities for Europeans. The EU's 28 member states jointly form the world's largest economy, biggest single market, and most prosperous continent. This was made possible by Europeans working hand in hand as partners who share the same values of democracy, the rule of law, private property, entrepreneurship, and universal human rights.

I firmly believe the U.K. is stronger as a member of the world's biggest economy and single market. Europe is stronger with Britain, and Britain is stronger in Europe. When casting their ballots, the citizens of the U.K. will determine the future of their membership in the EU. I am optimistic that they see the benefits of EU membership and the positive results of the reforms Prime Minister David Cameron is negotiating.

Thomas Raines, Research fellow and program manager of the Europe Program at Chatham House

Amid an unedifying campaign punctuated by disputed statistics, and with Europe's refugee crisis as a chaotic backdrop, opinion polls have been disconcertingly varied. But the sensible money is still on the UK voting to remain in the EU when the forthcoming referendum takes place, likely later in 2016.

The "leave" campaigns have been more dynamic but also racked by infighting. They cannot answer with any certainty important questions about the impact of leaving on the U.K. economy or the shape of post-Brexit U.K.-EU relations. The "leave" camp also lacks a figurehead with mass appeal who can reach beyond those already persuaded to quit the EU, whereas the "remain" camp will soon have the prime minister leading the charge.

Flawed as the handling of the renegotiation of Britain's EU membership has been, the expected deal will give some political cover to Conservative members of parliament who are wavering but inclined to stay loyal to the prime minister, limiting the size of the party split. Although European Council President Donald Tusk's draft deal published on February 2 was savaged by the British press, the symbolic value of the renegotiation remains. Prime Minister David Cameron will claim victory regardless, presenting an agreement he will say improves the status quo and protects the U.K.'s interests. Most of the public won't read the details.

There will be no mass conversation to European idealism, but nor do I expect a majority to lurch toward the radicalism that a vote to leave represents. In the end, I suspect undecided voters who weigh the benefits, the costs, and, perhaps most significantly, the risks will decide that the U.K. is, overall, better off in.

Gianni Riotta, Member of the Council on Foreign Relations

Very hard to tell. British Prime Minister David Cameron will work hard against Brexit, and the EU will try to offer him a sweeter deal on the terms of Britain's membership. Yet the populist winds are high in the U.K., and European bureaucrats are pretty clumsy and shortsighted. The debate is being held hostage by politicians, demagogues, and economists amid a riddle of arcane pros and cons only a PhD student can understand, peppered with rabid slogans that resemble a conversation at last orders in a pub.

Scary stuff. Cameron and the moderate Left in the opposition Labour Party should try to summon more people into the anti-Brexit tent. That means intellectuals, artists, popular figures, and football (soccer) players, to make clear this is the twenty-first century, not the Victorian age, when the Times allegedly ran the headline "Fog in Channel, Continent cut off."

If the fog of Brexit breaks out, the U.K. will be cut off. The country is already split in two social halves, the City of London financial center and the former industrial areas. The City will pay a huge price if Brexit hits, and the disaffected working class will find it even more difficult to get a job. The immigrants will soon discover there will be no more checkpoints at Calais and a short ride on a train or a crowded ferry is all it takes to be in London.

I'd still bet yes, London will stay European—but this is the sane solution, and we live in a time of madness.

Stephen Szabo, Executive director of the Transatlantic Academy

This is a question to which no one knows the answer. Poll results proved unreliable in the 2015 U.K. general election, and the outcomes of referenda are notoriously difficult to predict, with turnout being crucial. This sort of issue is far removed from the average voter, so only those with strong feelings will turn out to cast their ballots in the referendum on Britain's EU membership expected later in 2016.

In addition, there is the question of what the Scottish nationalists will do. They may have an incentive to vote for Britain to leave the EU, knowing that this outcome would increase the likelihood of Scotland's exit from the U.K. That is because if Britain votes for Brexit but the traditionally more pro-European Scots opt to stay in, the nationalist government in Edinburgh may hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. This is exactly the type of issue that should be decided by elected representatives rather than directly by the electorate. It requires a weighing up of a complex set of interests and a degree of expertise that the public lacks, especially a public that is so volatile.

Britain's EU membership referendum is, in short, an abdication of leadership by those elected to make just this sort of decision. Edmund Burke would not be pleased.

Pierre Vimont, Senior associate at Carnegie Europe

The question boils down to whether British citizens will vote rationally or not in the referendum on Britain's EU membership due by 2017 at the latest. If they do, there is little doubt they will vote to stay in the EU once they have pondered all the arguments.

If successfully concluded, the renegotiation process launched by British Prime Minister David Cameron will not be much of a game changer on either side. Whatever the shape of the final deal, it will not make much difference to the UK's EU membership, nor will it weaken the well-entrenched positions of Britain's anti-European camp.

However, the option of a British exit will impact the vote, as the referendum runs the risk of undermining most of the country's interests without much benefit in return. Voters will start wondering if there is a better status for the UK in the EU than the current setup, which in reality represents the best possible deal: in the single market, out of the eurozone and the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, and with a voice and a vote on all legislation discussed in Brussels.

With the referendum campaign, the British population will also have a better view of the implications of Brexit: two years or more of a painstaking process to cut British links with the union looks unpalatable at a time when all government efforts should be focused on more urgent matters.

There is also a risk of irrationality in the sequence that is about to unfold. But this has more to do with the EU than with Britain. Europe, as it stands, has very few arguments to stir enthusiasm or even support. The EU's credibility is eroded and its capacity to handle current challenges is becoming thinner by the day. This growing sense of a situation getting out of control can only reinforce the arguments of those in Britain who call for the country to be disentangled from such a failed Europe. In the end, this may well be the real uncertainty around the U.K. referendum.

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