Five Reasons a 'Brexit' is Increasingly Likely

British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to hold a national referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union (EU) by the end of 2017. Today the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party opens its annual party conference, with leader Nigel Farage pledging to focus the conference on the campaign. Some argue that the prospect of Britain's withdrawal from the EU, or "Brexit", is still unthinkable. Others argue that it is a real possibility. So why has Brexit become a more likely outcome?

1. Britain has a long tradition of wariness toward Europe.

The British never warmed to the idea of a European Union. They have long been the awkward partner, standing apart from their continental neighbors both geographically and psychologically. While the British voted, in 1975, in support of joining the European common market, ever since then large numbers of voters have regularly voiced their scepticism toward the EU and their desire for Brexit. Their concerns have typically centered on a loss of national sovereignty, the free movement of EU migrant workers, and a democratic deficit within the EU, all of which have left the British decidedly less enthusiastic about the project than their European neighbors. This helps to explain, for example, why rates of turnout at elections to the European Parliament have never surpassed 39 percent and are among the lowest in Europe. That voters would certainly be open to endorsing Brexit is also reflected in some of the more recent polling. For instance, as recently as November 2012, those who said they would vote for Brexit outnumbered those who said they would vote to stay in the EU. While the "Inners" subsequently established a strong lead, more recent polls from this month suggest that the race has once again tightened. In short, to those who have studied British public opinion toward Europe, a vote for Brexit would not be a surprise.

2. It's not just about Europe.

Much of the debate in Westminster is focused on David Cameron's current quest to secure reforms to the European Union, notably around the access of EU migrant workers to the welfare state. This makes sense, given that Cameron has gambled on securing a renegotiation of Britain's EU membership to entice the electorate to stay in the club. But it is also true that when it comes to referendums people don't always vote according to the question at hand. There is no guarantee that voters will simply cast their judgement based on what Cameron has or has not obtained from his counterparts in Brussels. It has been shown by researchers that more general views toward the domestic government, and anxieties over issues that are tangential to the question on the ballot, can often be strongly influential. If Cameron's government is deeply unpopular come the time of the referendum then all bets are off and some mid-term protest voting could be on. This is likely to be wrapped up with point number three.

3. The refugee crisis will influence the vote.

Even before the current refugee crisis erupted, large numbers of Britons felt intensely anxious about increased levels of immigration into Britain and the perceived effects of this change on wider society. The issue has long roots. British public concerns over migration were on the rise from as early as the late 1990s, and were then fuelled from 2004 and then 2014 by the arrival of migrant workers from EU member states such as Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. This anxiety was not calmed by Cameron's flawed promise to curb net migration to the "tens of thousands—an outcome he could never guarantee, as political leaders in Europe can no longer exert strong control over migration flows. As net migration continued to rise, so did public concern. We know, for example, that these concerns over immigration were absolutely central to driving support for UKIP, which campaigns to pull Britain out of the EU entirely, and which at the general election this year won nearly four million votes. And all of this was before the new refugee crisis. The crisis risks entrenching an association in the minds of large numbers of voters between, on the one hand, the European Union, and, on the other, uncontrolled borders and large migration flows. Eurosceptics are gambling that they can turn the referendum into a vote on immigration, and the crisis is playing directly into that strategy.

4. Don't forget the Corbyn factor.

The election of the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has thrown another variable into the mix. Unlike previous Labour leaders, such as Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, who were enthusiastic supporters of the EU, Corbyn is not a fully-committed Europhile. He has openly criticized the general direction of the EU, lamenting its embrace of the free market and failure to prevent the erosion of rights for workers. This should not be seen in isolation. Corbyn's doubts reflect a broader debate that has emerged among some on the left-wing of British politics about whether they should be offering unequivocal support to the EU, which some see as a predominantly capitalist enterprise that willingly abused the people of Greece and lacks sufficient democracy within its institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. While large majorities of Labour voters are likely to vote for Britain's continued membership of the EU, Corbyn's election has introduced an element of doubt. The blind loyalty of the left to pan-European unity can no longer be taken for granted. It is not difficult, for example, to imagine a scenario whereby Corbyn decides to spend time pointing to the perceived flaws in the EU so as to extract greater political concessions from Cameron, or perhaps to irritate his own Labour MPs who are not particularly supportive of his leadership or ideas.

5. Britain's relative economic strength might help the anti-EU camp.

Until recently, one of the core assumptions on the pro-EU side of the argument was that the British people would vote with their head and not their heart—that they would recognize the importance of the single market and the economic benefits that flow from Britain's EU membership. However, with the Eurozone still struggling economically from rampant debt, high unemployment and a failure to deliver structural reform, and Britain enjoying a relative economic recovery, it has become far more difficult to make the case that the country's interests are best served by remaining so closely attached, for example, to the fortunes of the Greek, French, Italian and Spanish economies. Eurosceptics are still struggling to set out a convincing and compelling vision of what the alternative economic arrangement would be, but nor are they confronted with the argument that Britain's EU membership can only be economically beneficial. If they can make Brexit look at least plausible, and frame the Eurozone as a continued threat to Britain's continued economic security, then who knows what the British people will decide in the referendum?

Matthew Goodwin is a Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and a Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House. He tweets at @GoodwinMJ