To break, or not to break? Brexit and the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe #2

This is the second part of Laura MacKenzie’s article about Brexit. In the first episode she presented the two opposing factions and the key political figures. Today she analyses the key arguments of the leave and remain campaigns. In the meantime, former London mayor Boris Johnson declared that the EU – as well as Hitler and Napoleon – is trying to unify Europe under a superstate and to bring it back to the golden age of the Romans.

THE KEY ARGUMENTS

Much of the arguments on both sides of the debate are, in fact, the same: issues of sovereignty, identity and money are being used to promote both British independence from, and continued membership of, the EU.

The ‘leave’ campaign is advocating for a full withdrawal of the UK from the EU, with a view to self-determination and total sovereignty.  The campaign argues that Britain would have more control of its own laws and regulations by leaving the EU, and would be free to negotiate trade deals that are of advantage to the UK specifically.  The rhetoric surrounding these arguments focuses on complications of EU bureaucracy, the issue of EU law supremacy in areas of EU competence, and the preference for the World Trade Organisation over EU trade agreements.

The ‘remain’ campaign refutes the idea that the UK would be better off in terms of trade and regulation outside the EU, arguing instead that the EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner and that the absence of tariffs makes for easier and more cost-effective trading.  In addition, the campaign argues that Britain has more influence on regulations and laws passed within Europe than it would outside the EU.

These arguments deal with the identity of the United Kingdom as an autonomous state within Europe and the world, and its influence and status amongst its peers.  However, it is in the issues that focus on numbers where we see the real debate happening.

YouGov conducted a poll of voters to determine whether being financially better off made a difference to how people would vote in the EU referendum.  It seems that if people think they will be better off outside of the EU, the ‘leave’ vote increases.  Similarly, if voters believe they will be better off staying in, then the vote to remain increases.  These results were seen regardless of the hypothetical amount of money suggested to voters, and there even seemed to be evidence that voters would vote to come out of the EU if they were assured they would simply not be worse off.

Both sides of the debate have used the issue of financial stability to either encourage or scare voters into supporting their position.  The ‘remain’ campaign has argued that British families are better off in the EU, citing cheap flights and low prices in supermarkets as evidence.  In addition, the investment in trade and jobs means that UK households are allegedly £3,000 a year better off.

Conversely, the ‘leave’ campaign argues that Britain would be vastly better off out of the EU, as the “huge” payments made to the EU budget would be spent on in-house services and projects such as the National Health Service or education.  In addition, the freedom from “excessive” EU regulation would purportedly lower business costs and save the treasury billions of pounds a year.

The other big numbers issue in the EU debate is that of immigration, with the ‘leave’ campaign arguing that Britain can only control borders if the country comes out of the EU and the ‘remain’ campaign citing the economic benefits of migration into the UK.

The campaign to leave the EU focuses primarily on migration of EU citizens to the UK.  It is argued that European migrants take jobs from British workers at the low-skilled end of the Labour market, while simultaneously putting pressure on public services such as health and housing.   By contrast, the ‘remain’ campaign asserts that immigration would increase if the UK was to leave the EU due to the shift in sea border controls from ports such as Calais in France to Dover in the south of the UK.  In addition, it is argued that being a member of the single market as a non EU state, like Norway, would compel the UK to accept free movement of people, thus having either a negative or no effect on levels of immigration.

These big issues are being tackled by both sides of the referendum debate and, with both campaigns presenting diametrically-opposed ‘facts’ on the subjects, it is no wonder that many British voters are confused.  While there are non-partisan projects, such as the UK in a Changing Europe, attempting to present factual analysis of the UK’s membership of the EU, there is a feeling that referendum campaigns rarely change people’s minds, other than to convince them that this is an important issue.

Opinion polls, although of limited value, have not shown much change over the last few months and weeks in aggregate public opinion on EU membership, and there is a feeling that the majority of voters’ minds are already made up.  There is some evidence that people tend towards the status quo when voting in referendums, but the EU referendum ballot paper will have no status quo option: following Cameron’s EU deal, the Union at the centre of the referendum question will be a different type of Union than we have previously seen.

This unusual form of referendum, coupled with the limited impact of campaigning on voters’ opinions, raises the concern that people will vote viscerally.  As in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 the question of EU membership goes to the heart of people’s perception of their nation and identity, and emotion, sentiment and perception become overriding factors in determining voter preferences.

No matter what the facts or figures, it is highly likely that British voters will vote on the basis of their perceptions, rather than the statistics, and it is in the highly prominent and salient issue of extra-EU migration over the past year that we see the greatest potential for emotional voting to impact on a Brexit vote.

THE MIGRATION MATHS PROBLEM

In 2015, more than 1,000,000 migrants entered Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and further afield.  Media coverage of the migration crisis has been high, with reports of illegal people smuggling and graphic images of dead children causing shock, distress and anger in equal measure.  For Brits, the closure of the Channel Tunnel and disruption to Eurostar schedules brought the migrant crisis much closer to home.

In the wake of the worst migration news stories over the summer period in 2015, a poll was conducted by market research firm, Survation, specifically focusing on the impact of migration on attitudes to the EU.  At the time of polling, the UK had accepted fewer than 200 refugees compared with Germany’s 30,000 but less than a quarter of respondents felt that Angela Merkel had done better than David Cameron in allowing more refugees into the country.  By contrast, almost half of all respondents felt that David Cameron had a better approach.

Other notable results included 56% of respondents indicating their concern about accepting more refugees, compared with only 15% suggesting that they would be happy for the UK to take more refugees in the future.  In addition, 64% agreed that David Cameron was right to refuse the EU’s migrant-sharing plan.  Of those voters who had previously indicated their intention to vote to remain in the EU, 22% said they would change their vote to a ‘leave’ vote if the migration crisis worsened.

Although we should not take one poll as a definitive guide to overall voter preferences, the results amongst these respondents at least seem to show a significant impact of the migration crisis on attitudes towards the EU.  In addition to concerns about numbers of migrants, security fears have fed into voters’ attitudes towards the EU’s handling of the crisis with concerns that terrorists could take advantage of irregular migration patterns to enter the EU.  Also, the lack of EU-wide consensus on how to deal with the situation has left British voters wondering whether there is even a Union of which to be a member.

TO BREAK, OR NOT TO BREAK?  THAT IS THE QUESTION

With under 6 weeks remaining before voters go to the polls to decide on the future of Britain and its relationship with Europe, it is still difficult to predict what the outcome will be.  Polls are showing that both sides are neck-and-neck, with a result similar to the Scottish independence referendum a possibility.  The campaigns to remain and to leave have begun in earnest, and facts and figures are being presented to the British voting public in an attempt to secure support and to change minds.

However, despite the electioneering and fact-finding, the British public will make their decision on one question alone: do the figures add up?  On 23 June, we will find out.

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