Why the UK Will Vote to Leave the EU

Why the UK Will Vote to Leave the EU

by Graham Watson

On the morning after this year’s UK general election, Prime Minister Cameron called a referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. The bill to prepare it is currently going through parliament with the referendum likely being held before the end of 2017 and probably as early as 2016, meaning that a vote could be just a few months away. Prime Minister Cameron does not see it, but the UK is rushing headfirst towards the door marked “exit.”

Public opinion polling shows one third of the electorate in favor of leaving, one third for staying, and one third undecided. This was also the case in 1975, the year of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s referendum, in which almost all the “undecideds” were won over by the pro-Europe campaign. But there are some crucial differences between the 1975 referendum and this one.

In 1975 British business overwhelmingly backed the “Yes to Europe” campaign, which outspent the “No” campaign by a factor of 12 to 1. Now, business is more divided and rules governing political donations and campaign spending make such a spending difference impossible. Indeed, the campaign to withdraw has thus far raised more money than the campaign to stay.

In 1975 the newspapers and the broadcasters backed continued UK membership, as did the vast majority of political leaders. That is no longer the case. Since 1979, three powerful media magnates have poisoned the political atmosphere through constantly badmouthing the EU and many government ministers have joined them. The attitudes of the major political party leaders, David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, are lukewarm at best.

In 1975 the “undecided” third of the electorate was open-minded and—by the end of the campaign —reasonably well informed. This time the UK population understands less about the EU than the people of almost any other EU country. Public opinion research shows those “in the middle” are far more likely to vote to leave. Polls find that 15 percent of the population might be won over if they think exiting will lead to economic disaster. A further 19 percent feel the EU has no impact whatsoever on their lives. And both sets of people feel uncomfortable with UK membership, having no trust in politicians and associate words like “hope,” “strength,” and “future” more with leaving the EU than with staying. Moreover, an increasing number of people believe that if Britain votes to leave it will not be the end of the story; they expect a second referendum to ensue. Yet studies of previous referenda show that a second referendum is extremely rare.

David Cameron’s “renegotiation” of the terms of our membership is likely to be a damp squib. Our EU partners have made it clear that change to EU treaties is not on their agenda. For every partner Prime Minister Cameron finds to back the reforms he seeks, there is at least one against. He believes he can have a “British Europe,” but this is no more achievable than a “French Europe” or a “German Europe.” By definition, the European Union is a carefully crafted compromise whose rules are revised rarely and only by consensus. “Teaching Johnny Foreigner a thing or two” may appeal to some conservatives, but the Prime Minister’s refusal to join other areas of EU cooperation, such as the resettlement of refugees, means he finds few friends when he needs them.

The most worrying thing to me about this referendum is my strong sense that the political establishment cannot win it. Many are unable to bring themselves to say anything good about Europe, so will rely on negative arguments. Such arguments nearly backfired in Scotland’s referendum on independence last year. Though defenders of the status quo in Scotland narrowly won the vote, they lost the argument by a large margin. They articulated no positive vision for the future, while those seeking to leave argued with emotion and passion, just as the anti-Europeans do.

At stake in the UK are over 50 percent of the country’s exports. Financial services, food businesses, and manufacturing would be hit particularly hard by a break from the UK’s main market partners. Also at stake are the rights of Britons to work, study, live, marry, own property, and even benefit from hospital treatment on the continent, as well as workers’ rights agreed at the EU level such as the right to holiday pay for part-time workers. Finally, at stake is the United Kingdom itself. A majority in Scotland will almost certainly vote to remain in and a majority in Northern Ireland will likely do the same. A majority to come out in England, the largest component of the UK, would likely hasten the break-up of the UK.

Will Britons turn their backs on a political project which has brought seventy years of peace to Western Europe? On free movement rules which allow a Frenchman to manage Arsenal Football Club, a Dutchman to run Manchester United and a Portuguese to steer Chelsea? On membership of a club which gives 500 million Europeans as strong a voice in world affairs as twice as many Indians and three times as many Chinese speakers?

Not understanding the consequences, they might. The only way it can be prevented is for ordinary Britons to recognise that the London political elite cannot win this campaign and to organize now to make sure their country does not sleepwalk out of the EU.

Image "EU Mock Council" Courtesy Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Born in Rothesay, Scotland in 1956, Sir Graham Watson is President of the European Liberal Democrat Party and a co-founder and Honorary Chairman of the Climate Parliament, a global network of legislators working to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. From 1994 to 2014 he represented South West England in the European Parliament, during which time he was elected Chairman of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee (1999-2002), Leader of the Liberal Democrat group (2002-09) and Chairman of the EP's delegation for relations with India (2009-14). He is now a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee, an advisory body to the EU institutions. The father of two children and the author of ten books on political issues, he speaks four EU languages fluently and is learning mandarin Chinese.

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