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Would Britain actually vote to leave the European Union?

British Prime Minister David Cameron
REUTERS/Jeff Overs/BBC
Over the weekend, British Prime Minister David Cameron finished negotiations on a package of reforms that he says will give his country more flexibility in its relations with the European Union.

Can a coalition of strongly conservative, older and working-class voters fed up with what they regard as a too-powerful and distant institutions fall in line with a charismatic big-city politician whose hair is a running joke, and change their country’s direction?

One of the world’s most important democracies is about to find out.

And no, we’re not talking about the United States.

Over the weekend, British Prime Minister David Cameron finished negotiations on a package of reforms that he says will give his country more flexibility in its relations with the European Union. The stage is now set for a referendum on whether Britain stays in the EU, which Cameron promised back in 2013, mostly to assuage a contingent within his own Conservative Party that wants out. The vote will be held June 23. Opinion polls indicate that it is likely to be close.

No country has ever voted to leave, and the controversy comes at an awkward time for the 28-member EU. It is struggling with an immigration crisis, economic woes, and a nagging feeling among many, reflected in populist right-wing movements in several countries, that the drive for an “ever-closer union” has gone far enough – if not too far. 

That in itself appears to be one expression of a broader phenomenon affecting much of the Western world, including the U.S. It is reflected in deep disenchantment with politicians, government and other large institutions; a concern with securing borders; and a stronger focus on the national interest.

The concessions Cameron won seem modest enough. The most concrete appear to be those that give Britain the right to limit public-assistance payments to migrant workers from poorer EU countries who traveled to the United Kingdom to find a job. Britain has been a member since 1973, but never joined the euro zone, preferring to keep its own currency.

Cameron says what he wrangled from EU officials is sufficient, and that he will campaign to remain in the union.

However, six of his own Cabinet ministers support leaving the EU.

The anger doesn’t seem as raw in Britain as it does among some U.S. primary voters. But four months ahead of the referendum, the country seems closely divided. One widely cited poll in recent days put the anti-EU, or so-called Brexit, vote slightly ahead – with about a quarter of those who say they’ll vote undecided.

Surveys conducted over time by YouGov indicate a very tight race, and also show where the battle lines are drawn:

 • Younger people strongly favor staying in the EU. The majority of those over 50 favor leaving.

• 64 percent of those who describe themselves as fairly or very left-wing favor remaining. An identical percentage of those who are fairly or very right-wing want out.

• Those who vote for the Conservatives favor a Brexit by a 55-45 margin. More than 60 percent of Labor, Green, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party voters favor remaining in the EU. 

As Peter Kellner wrote in an analysis accompanying the YouGov poll results, one key will be whether working class voters who tend to favor leaving the EU, actually turn out to vote.

In this piece, the Financial Times finds growing support for the strongly anti-EU UK Independence Party in an unlikely place – Wales, which is a major beneficiary of EU policies. The party has built support on concerns over immigration and the frustrations of former blue-collar workers over lack of jobs. The result is that Wales as a whole may well vote to leave the EU.

Now, about the hair.

The one element the Brexit crowd was missing was a major political figure to focus the campaign. That changed Sunday when London Mayor Boris Johnson announced his support for leaving the EU.

Kellner wrote back in January that Johnson’s position was likely to be an important factor. He is one of the country’s most charismatic politicians (and his hair is wild enough that it has its own Twitter feed). Cameron had hoped he could persuade Johnson, a fellow Conservative who is thought to have ambitions to become prime minister one day, to join the pro-EU campaign.

Johnson said Sunday that Cameron had done a good job negotiating with EU officials, but that the result fell short of fundamental reform. The EU limited British sovereignty, he said.

The campaign will take place at a time when the EU’s struggles make it harder to argue for staying the in the union. On the other hand, just as with the referendum on Scottish independence a year and a half ago, voters may decide they’re not ready for such a drastic step. Among other things, there is no surer way to trigger a second vote in Scotland for independence.

Game on.

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Comments (2)

Indeed, "Game on."

Mark, you provide a nice cursory summary of issues here, perhaps sufficient for most American readers.
As one who has followed the Brexit issue fairly closely, I wish only to add a few points of perception.

PM Cameron has lost a fair bit of his former Conservative patina; therefore, the open challenges from Boris Johnson (once considered a "kook" in various silly costumes, literally). Johnson now postions himself perhaps as next Prime Minister, as he bonds with over 100 Tory "back benchers" who continue to oppose Cameron's seemingly "progressive" overtures. [Note to American readers: the average British Conservative is far more liberal than most U.S. Republican Congress Members.]

As of this weekend, the general feeling of Cameron's very heated negotiations in Brussels centers on continued doubt. These were pretty "weedy" for most Brits, not to mention everyone else on Earth. The outcome so far seems to be more one of process than of principle. Who should be surprised, given that European [EU] matters are nearly all about process rather than product. What Cameron supposedly gained is a victory in term of change, not so much terms of change (number of years--2 vs.7--in some reforms, for example. These results would seem to diminish Cameron's alleged "victory."

Added to all this Brexit unrest is the unsettling tax/pension/subsidy proposals just coming from Cameron's Chancellor, George Osborne. Britain is, after all, a very committed Social Democracy, where the government does run many public service budgets we Americans don't notice.

My personal view, for the little it matters, is simply that PM Cameron has not done a deal in Brussels that serves his own population all that well. Again, much of the points to be manipulated concern the current immigrant question/"crisis". That's currently a hot button in Britain; however, most Brits seem to be concerned for more fundamental issues than that.

Of most interest to me over this weekend, was brief commentary that Anglo/French relations may be the true sticking point for Brexit. We Americans do know one key element of European relations: Britain and France have been at each other in some way for hundreds of years.

One thing is certain to me: As much as we Americans now beat ourselves with self-doubt, we should all bond in the knowledge that we have become more and more detached from British and French influence...well, at least until the next European was, that is. The EU is failing, and failing faster now.

Whatever our sense of ourselves is in our own election cycle, please, let's remember that we do retain more self-determination than most of our global friends.

Pivoting West: Not simply away from the Middle East, but also away from the growing mess (again) that is Europe. Yes, we do need to change our own practices, perhaps not principles.

Is it a fair American mission to "settle our own hash," as it were, especially regarding Central/North American inclusion and prosperity? I believe so. Let's work on that with what still remains this day to be "good old American common sense."

ironic ...

... that GB may vote to leave the Eurozone, but they were all about maintaining union when Scotland sought more political and economic autonomy within the GB governing construct