Today, Britain will cast a historic and decisive vote on whether to leave or remain in the European Union, a 65-year-old regional bloc it joined in 1973.
This is the United Kingdom’s second referendum on its continued membership in the EU. In 1975, it held a similar vote and 67% of its electorate voted to stay in the then European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU.
If the latest polls are any guidance, Britain Stronger in Europe – the main cross-party group campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU – will unlikely achieve such a resounding victory in this Thursday’s referendum. Yet, it is more likely that Britain will again vote Remain because the costs of its withdrawal from the 500-million-people economic bloc would outweigh any potential benefits.
A Remain victory, no matter how slim it is, will be certainly an outcome that EU leaders and supporters desperately hope for as a reverse result could spell the demise of the 28-member organization and Europe’s post-war peace in the years to come.
Britain is stronger in Europe?
The pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU was made by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in January 2013. On February 20, 2016, just hours after reaching a renegotiated agreement on the UK’s relationship with the EU, he set June 23 for the vote and said he would be campaigning for the UK to remain in a reformed EU.
Most of the UK’s other key political parties, including Labor, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National Party (SNP) and their leaders and members of parliament, also campaign for Remain.
Vote Leave or Brexit is championed by a smaller cross-party group, that include the leaders of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic and right-wing populist political party and a number of members of Conservative party. Prominent among these are Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and five ministers in David Cameron’s current cabinet, with one these being Michael Gove, Justice Secretary.
Key economy, immigration issues
The economy and immigration are two of the key issues that have dominated the 4-month-long referendum campaign.
The Brexit side, with “Take back control” as its slogan, argue that the UK will be better off in the long run outside the EU if it ‘takes back control’ that enables it to make its own decisions on immigration policy and economic regulations.
According to Johnson and other Brexiters, the UK’s economy can perform better outside the EU. In their view, a Brexit will free UK companies from the burden of EU regulations and the UK will be able to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries.
In contrast, according to the Remain team, a Brexit will harm Britain’s economy in both the short-term and long-term.
In fact, leading experts and bosses in finance and business almost universally warn that Britain’s decision to leave the EU would damage its growth and prosperity.
For example, on the eve of the referendum, more than 1,280 executives, including directors from 51 FTSE 100 companies, backed the UK’s continued membership of the EU.
They said: “Britain leaving the EU would mean uncertainty for our firms, less trade with Europe and fewer jobs.” In contrast, Britain remaining in the EU would mean “more certainty, more trade and more jobs. EU membership is good for business and good for British jobs.”
Nobel prize-winning economists also believed “the UK would be better off economically inside the EU.”
With regard to immigration, Leave supporters argue it is impossible for the UK to control it if it stays in the EU and high immigration is bad for the UK’s economy and its people. For them, public services, e.g. schools and hospitals, are under huge strain mainly due to the high levels of migrants.
In contrast, while acknowledging that immigration is an issue that needs to be better dealt with, the Remain team maintain that immigration is good for the economy and that European migrants pay more in taxes than they take out. This is, in fact, backed up by a number of studies.
While most studies stress that it makes relatively small difference to the UK’s public finances, costing or contributing less than 1% of the UK’s GDP, immigration has dominated the campaign. Because of it, the referendum campaign has at times become nasty and caustic. As it is a big issue for many British voters who are concerned about their jobs, immigration, which is widely seen as the Leave camp’s trump card, can be a key factor determining the outcome of the referendum.
Another relevant issue, which is highlighted by Remain campaigners, is that a Brexit would undermine the unity of the UK, which consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
John Major and Tony Blair, former Conservative and Labor prime ministers, who played key roles in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s, warned that a Brexit could harm peace in Northern Ireland and trigger another independent referendum in Scotland.
The UK’s global role and defense is another major issue debated during the campaign. The Leave camp contend that Britain will play a bigger role on the world stage as an independent country.
However, the Remain side reject that argument, highlighting that leaving the EU, which has become a global actor, will diminish Britain’s influence in world affairs and prevent it from working with EU neighbors to tackle common major threats that face Britain and Europe.
Remain’s view is backed by former and present chiefs of NATO, US President Barack Obama and leaders and policy-makers from the UK’s allies. All of these warned that Britain’s place in the world and security would be damaged if it votes to exit.
For instance, a day before the vote, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s current Secretary General, said “a strong UK in a strong Europe is good for the UK and it’s good for NATO, because we are faced with unprecedented security challenges.” In his view, a fragmented Europe would create uncertainty and instability in the region.
Facing such a pessimistic prospect is the reason why those who advocate for a peaceful and stable Europe hope the UK – the EU’s second and the world’s fifth biggest economy, a member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power country – will remain in the EU.
Is Europe securer with Britain in?
The grouping of the 28 democracies, the most advanced regional organization in the world, has faced many huge internal and external problems in recent years. Prominent among these are the 2008 financial crisis, the Ukraine issue and the refugee crisis. Some of these are partly – if not mostly – of its own making.
Yet, despite its weaknesses and problems, the EU was and remains very relevant to Europe. In fact, it has made significant achievements and contributions. One of these is its contribution to peace in Europe.
In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “over six decades [contributing] to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” While some disagreed with the award, most recognized that the EU played a key role in transforming Europe “from a continent of wars to a continent of peace.”
In a speech in 2011, Herman Van Rompuy, then President of the European Council, said: “Today, some problems notwithstanding, Europe is by and large the most prosperous, the most secure and the freest continent on earth.”
Judging by international indicators, e.g. World Bank’s GDP per capita, Freedom House’s freedom index, or Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, the EU region is still much freer, richer and more peaceful than many the world’s other regions, including Southeast and East Asia.
Though it has risen economically, this region has faced great security challenges, e.g. South China Sea disputes. Historical mistrust and geopolitical rivalry, e.g. between Japan and China, remains very strong. A number of regional countries, e.g. China and Vietnam, are still authoritarian. All of this can lead to instability and conflict in Southeast and East Asia.
The EU’s past contribution and present importance has been highlighted by many people and groups during the campaign.
Faith leaders in the UK urged voters to “think about the implications of a Leave vote.” They highlighted that “the past 70 years have been the longest period of peace in Europe’s history” and “institutions that enable us to work together […] contribute to our increased security and sense of collective endeavor.”
Catholic Bishops of England and Wales paid tribute to “the contribution of the European project to peace in Western Europe” and emphasized that the UK’s EU referendum “is about much more than economics.”
As has been pointed out, over the last five centuries, there were only two periods, namely the 1815-1914 era and the period since 1945, during which Europe were relatively peaceful. While the former was associated with the Concert of Europe, a continent-wide cooperation system, the latter was associated with the EU and its immediate predecessors.
Besides these two periods, Europe endured more than 20 long and/or deadly wars. Two of them were the last two world wars, which were also regarded as European wars. These two resulted in the deaths of 90 million people, some 65% of whom died in Europe.
The root causes of these wars were ultra-nationalism, nationalist rivalries and xenophobia. The need to eliminate or move away from such destructive forces and to prevent Europeans from fighting each other again was the rationale behind the European project.
Ultra-nationalism and xenophobia have now re-emerged in several European countries.
Nationalism – or at least economic nationalism – is a reason behind the Brexit movement and xenophobic sentiments have been visible during the referendum campaign.
A day before the vote, Michael Gove, a prominent Leave campaigner and Justice Secretary, apologized for comments he made comparing economic experts supporting Remain to Nazi propagandists.
Six days earlier, Jo Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two, a charity campaigner and a Labor MP, who was an ardent supporter of EU membership, was murdered. Asked to give his name court, her alleged murderer told his name was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
A Brexit victory in this EU referendum will immensely boost extreme right-wing, ultra-nationalist, anti-EU forces in other EU countries, encouraging them to demand similar referenda. This could signal the demise of the EU and the post-war peace that it has worked hard to nourish in the last seven decades.
This shows the stakes of this one-in-two generations referendum are very high and huge, not only for the UK but also for the EU and Europe as a whole.
Putting aside emotionally-filled issues, e.g. immigration and resentment of immigrants, the UK electorate will probably vote to remain in the EU because a strong and united Britain in a strong and peaceful Europe would make the UK stronger, safer and better off.
Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.