On June 23, 2016, the people of the United Kingdom will vote in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union. This so-called “Brexit” has vast implications for the future of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and global geopolitics in general.
The United Kingdom has always had a relatively complicated relationship with Europe compared to other member countries. Its former imperial status, island nature, relationship with the United States, and vision of itself during World War Two are all seen as factors for its less-than-full acceptance of the Europe project. Great Britain declined to become a founding member of the EU precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1957. It was not until 1975—the last time the country had a nation-wide referendum—that the United Kingdom joined the EEC. Additionally, although Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, becoming a part of the European Union, the country opted out of the single currency Euro. Britain has also has declined to become a part of the Schengen Zone, an area of 25 European countries that experience free movement through the elimination of internal border control.
While Euroscepticism originated within the left wing of the Labour party, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s anti-European stance transformed and divided the Conservative party, demonstrating this issue’s ability to cross party lines. The rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) has further put pressure on the Conservative Party to back the demands of the Eurosceptics. As said by historian Vernon Bogdador, “Some might argue that the fundamental conflict in post-war British politics is not so much between left and right as between those who believe that Britain’s future lies with Europe and those who believe it does not.”
This historical and political background helps explain Prime Minister David Cameron’s increasing accession to the anti-European camp, despite his support for remaining a part of the EU. In 2011, he vetoed the EU fiscal treaty regarding the financial crisis in the Eurozone, sparking the ire of the rest of the EU by making the UK the only member state to do so. That year, Prime Minister Cameron also passed the European Union Act of 2011, which requires a referendum in Britain for EU treaties that transfer powers from the United Kingdom to the EU. Then, in 2013, Cameron promised a nation-wide referendum on remaining a member of the EU at all if the Conservatives won the 2015 elections. The Conservative victory in that election, thus, set the stage for the biggest debate on the country’s future with Europe in decades.
First, however, Cameron promised to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership before the referendum, promising to fix the main issues the anti-EU camp has with its membership. The advocates of the Brexit cite the high costs of membership, regaining control over regulations, and, perhaps most significantly given the recent Paris attacks and the relationship between free movement and national security, curbing the flow of migration into the country. On February 19, 2016, Cameron completed the renegotiation summit in Brussels, having received concessions on all issues he brought to the table. These include:
- a new formula for child benefit payments for migrant workers, reflecting the cost of living in the worker’s home country,
- an “emergency brake” to limit migrant workers’ in-work benefits for their first four years living in the UK,
- a “red card” for national parliaments, under which the disapproval of 55% of parliaments could block new EU laws,
- an agreement on competitiveness to improve the internal market and regulations,
- an agreement of non-discrimination from euro-zone countries against the pound, and
- a commitment that the UK will not integrate further to form an “ever closer union.”
Although Mr. Cameron achieved many of his demands during this summit, it is unclear whether these reforms will be enough to satisfy the British public. For those who believe that Britain’s future is best apart from Europe, these reforms are far too piecemeal compared to the legal separation that is the Brexit.
On the other hand, the pro-European Union camp argues there will be disastrous consequences if the British people vote to end their membership in the European Union. Advocates of remaining in the EU point out that almost 50% of British exports go to the EU, and consequently that the UK benefits enormously from its relatively unencumbered access to this single market. They argue it is uncertain what kind of free-trade deal the United Kingdom could strike in the absence of its membership within the EU. On the issue of regulation, the pro-Europe camp argues that it is better for British business to exert its influence from within the European Union, as opposed to having to deal with the EU as an outsider. Consequently, the British financial sector and big business is overwhelmingly against any Brexit, fearing that it would lead to economic downtown within Britain, as the country would lose its biggest market for goods, financial services, and human capital. Additionally, EU supporters point to the benefits migrant workers offer the British economy, and the fact that approximately 2 million British citizens currently live in EU countries. Finally, the EU advocates argue that Britain’s international status is best maintained as a key influencer within the European Union, and its standing will be damaged by leaving.
The uncertainty surrounding this decision is already having an affect on British markets. After influential London Mayor Boris Johnson backed the Brexit, the pound plummeted to its lowest level since the global recession. There is fear that this is just the beginning of the negative financial implications that would occur should the British people vote for the departure.
Geopolitically, it is similarly unclear what the future would look like for both the United Kingdom and Europe should one of its most powerful members exit. Will this lead to the further disintegration of the European Union? This seems particularly precarious at a time in which the continent is already facing a multitude of crises, from nations in bankruptcy, to a major refugee problem, as well as recent terrorist attacks. Moreover, the Brexit could lead to Scotland’s renewed demand for independence, given its more pro-European standing, further creating a geopolitical quagmire. Additionally, it is unclear how the departure would affect the United States’ relationship with Europe, as the U.S. would lose its strongest ally within the bloc. With all the excitement surrounding the upcoming U.S. presidential election, it can be easy to get lost in the politics of our own country—however, Britain’s referendum in June has equally far reaching consequences that the world will be watching just as closely.