Brexit explainer: Britain’s referendum on EU membership

SMH LOGOOn Thursday, June 23, Britons will vote to determine their nation’s future: either to remain a part of the 28-nation grouping of the European Union, with its economic heft and its tangle of rules and regulations, or to forge a different destiny as a country apart.

Those who want to leave the EU, led by the popular Tory MP and one-time London mayor Boris Johnson (below, centre) have been branded as Little Englanders. They are regressives, their critics say, insular blowhards who want to abandon the decades of progress that came with building a union of like-minded nations, characterised by free trade and freedom of movement.

Those who want to stick with the EU, led by Britain’s Conservative Party Prime Minister, David Cameron, have been seen as cowards who fear Britain cannot stand alone; Europhiles who happily trade Britain’s independence for the illusory comfort of a grand alliance.

Market jitters, politicians’ impassioned campaigning and outlandish claims have marked the increasingly febrile campaign, with former foreign minister William Hague even warning that Britain leaving the EU risked the “fragmentation of the Western world”.
The British public responded with a last minute surge to register for the vote (so large that the government website crashed).

The In (or Remain) camp has focused on the economic risks of leaving the EU, the trade deals that would have to be renegotiated, the shock to the British economy.Out (or Leave) campaigners have pushed hard on migration, with the flood of refugees arriving in Europe in recent months fanning entrenched fears that Britain is being swamped by foreigners.

The Outers

The Out camp insists the lumbering EU is weighing Britain down, imposing a confusing web of often-ridiculous rules and costing billions in membership fees. They say Britain made the right decision to stay out of the EU’s euro currency, and British voters should now choose the same path and get out of the EU.

Outists, among them Nigel Farage from the UK Independence Party (UKIP), raise the spectre of an untrammelled flood of refugees pouring into the island nation. They want the drawbridge pulled up, they want fewer immigrants, and they express horror at the notion of a “United States of Europe”.

Johnson, who appears to be trying to reshape his image from intelligent joker to serious statesman, expressed his trenchant views in an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper last month. He ended with a call for British courage: This is a moment to be brave, to reach out – not to hug the skirts of Nurse in Brussels, and refer all decisions to someone else”.

He’s slung a few barbs at Cameron’s Brexit arguments.

“I think all this talk of World War Three and bubonic plague is totally demented frankly,” Johnson said in a Sky News interview.

The Inners

The In supporters champion the economic strength that comes with the sheer size of the EU, the ease of travel on the continent, the trade benefits of membership, and the young, eager, skilled immigrants who boost Britain’s growth. They don’t want Britain to suffer what they say are the potentially dire economic consequences of leaving the bloc.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party believes the country should stick with the EU; so do the IMF, the Bank of England and the World Bank.

Cameron warned last month that voting to leave the EU would be a “self-destruct option”, after Britain’s long and gruelling recovery from the global financial crisis.

“It would be like surviving a fall and then running straight back to the cliff edge,” he said.

In a televised debate on Tuesday, Cameron accused the Leave camp of lying, he called on British pride and pleaded with voters not to back “the little England of Nigel Farage”.

“Leaving is quitting,” he added, “and I don’t think we’re quitters. We’re fighters. We fight in these organisations.”

Timeline of a referendum

Britain voted to stay in the precursor to the EU in a referendum in 1975, but the current crop of Outists argue the EU has morphed into an entirely different beast since then.

After sustained pressure, Cameron promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if he won the 2015 general election.

Earlier this year, he tried to amend Britain’s EU membership deal as a compromise arrangement. He says the resulting EU agreement means Britain will be given special status in the EU, but critics pooh-pooh his bargain, saying it will make little difference. The simple In/Out referendum this month will provide a definitive answer.


The British public appears to be almost evenly divided on Brexit, according to most polls. Still, the veteran Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby pointed out this week in Britain’s Telegraph that Out voters seem more likely to turn up to vote, which could make all the difference.

“The clear trend over the course of ORB’s polls for the Telegraph shows that Leave campaign has a turnout advantage over the Remain campaign,” he wrote.

Yet, considering the pollsters’ dismal record recently, it may not be wise to rely too much on the numbers. Opinion polls in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 predicted the final result would be far closer than it actually was and few predicted the Conservative Party’s thumping win in last year’s general election.

Most polls find the Brexit vote too close to call, with percentage point leads within the margin of error – but the British public may surprise pundits yet with a big margin either way.

Political positioning

There are, of course, many subterranean agendas at work in and around the Brexit campaign. Johnson may sincerely believe Britain should leave the EU, or he may be using it as a platform to tilt for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Or both.

He has been accused of giving Cameron only nine minutes’ warning before announcing himself as a champion of the Leave camp, and it has been argued he is using the political vaulting horse of Brexit to bounce him higher up the Conservatives’ seniority ladder. Long seen as a likeable, but not too serious charmer, Johnson has tried to craft gravitas as the leader of the Out campaign, with mixed results.

Cameron’s political destiny, too, will be shaped by the Brexit decision. A vote for Britain to leave the EU will most likely see him out of a job in days.

His arguments in favour of Britain remaining in the bloc have become increasingly strident as the campaign progresses – and his opponents increasingly resentful.

Rebel Tory MPs (Brexit sympathisers) last month called for a new leader and a general election this year. A substantial vote to stay in the EU, by contrast, would bolster his political credentials and burnish his legacy.

Immigrants – a pivotal issue

As enormous crowds of refugees and economic migrants streamed into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East over the past year or so, millions of British voters have taken fright. Soaring annual net immigration to Britain – 323,000 on the latest figures, more than three times Cameron’s 2011 “no ifs, no buts, pledge” to keep the numbers down – has been matched by spikes in British concern, and increasing disquiet about Britain’s membership of the EU.

Cameron was taken to task on immigration in the EU debate on Tuesday, and booed by the audience after refusing to say by how much net migration would fall by as a result of his renegotiation with the EU.

“I haven’t made a forecast,” he said, blaming “extraordinary years in the EU” for the unprecedented surge in migration numbers.

Brexit dominos

A survey of 10 large EU nations by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre, released on Tuesday, found plummeting support for the EU, most strikingly in France, where only 38 per cent of respondents said they had a favourable view of the EU, down 17 points from last year.

Favourability ratings also fell by 16 points in Spain to 47 per cent, Reuters reported, by eight points in Germany to 50 per cent, and by seven points in Britain to 44 per cent.

“The British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union,” Pew said.

If Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23, it’s likely the disaffected rumblings across Europe will get louder and more difficult to ignore, and may ignite the exit push in other nations (Frexit? Gexit? Spexit?).

The fallout

A British vote to leave the EU would have enormous and far-reaching consequences. Financial heavyweights have warned the split would send shockwaves through the British economy. Diplomats fear a Brexit vote will damage the standing of the EU, and erode the bloc’s already crumbling credibility.

Worse, some analysts see a successful Brexit vote as a forerunner to the break-up of the entire bloc and a return to a divided continent of relatively small, isolated and occasionally warring nations.

The independence push in disaffected regions – such as Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Spain’s Catalonia – could also be reenergised by an Out vote.