“To Leave, or Not to Leave…That is the Question:” 121 Days Until the UK Referendum
February 22, 2016
Prior to the UK General Elections in May 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged, if reelected, to hold a nation-wide referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in a “reformed EU.” After days of high drama in Brussels, a “reform” deal between the 27 members of the European Union and the United Kingdom has been reached. Prime Minister Cameron contends that, with this agreement, he has delivered. While the deal does not contain sweeping EU reforms, it certainly achieves greater recognition of the United Kingdom’s protected “special status” within Europe.
For months, Prime Minister Cameron has worked intensely to convince skeptical European leaders to agree to a legally binding reform plan based on four key areas: strengthening national sovereignty, increasing EU economic competitiveness, limiting immigrant welfare benefits, and seeking protections from the costs of integration and financial regulation the emanate from the eurozone. On Friday, Cameron notably succeeded in convincing his EU partners to index the benefits provided for the children of EU migrants working abroad (something that all EU members will now benefit from) and create an “emergency brake” on providing social benefits to EU migrants. Under the new terms, member states will be allowed to restrict the benefits paid out to individual EU migrants for four years should their public finance system experience “excessive pressure” due to a labor influx. The emergency brake is temporary, however (it is only valid for a seven-year period), and member states must first obtain European Commission approval (which EU leaders preemptively indicated they would grant to the United Kingdom). Additionally, Cameron secured recognition that the United Kingdom will not be bound to support an “ever closer union,” a commitment that will be enshrined in language in a future EU treaty (although there will not be a treaty change for a very long time as it would trigger referenda in other EU countries, which would likely reject the change). He also obtained a guarantee that uniquely safeguards the United Kingdom from paying into future bailouts of the eurozone and exempts it from contentious financial regulations. The French, however, secured language to ensure “a level playing field” in the single market, which some have argued may not afford the protections the City of London desires. This stipulation will also be enshrined in an eventual treaty change.
With the deal in hand, the referendum will be held on June 23 and will ask the following question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Although the negotiations with his 27 counterparts were challenging, Prime Minister Cameron now turns to the most difficult negotiation and act of persuasion of all: convincing a majority of British voters to support remaining in the European Union. Domestic reviews of Cameron’s reforms have been decidedly mixed. The prime minister has vowed to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union with his “heart and soul,”’ but the “soul” of the Conservative Party see these results not as major reforms but as small concessions that do not fundamentally change the UK-EU relationship. Among those unimpressed are six members of the prime minister’s cabinet, who have publicly announced that they will support the campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The high-profile former mayor of London and member of Parliament, Boris Johnson, also supports a British exit from the European Union. Perhaps most damaging was the decision by Justice Secretary Michael Gove, one Cameron’s closest friends and a personal confidant, who released an impassioned statement on why the United Kingdom will be better off leaving the European Union. Opposition Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn describes the agreement as a “Cameron sideshow” but has signaled that he would support it. The leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, is in the uncomfortable position of supporting David Cameron in his quest to remain in the European Union while simultaneously threatening to call a second Scottish independence referendum if the United Kingdom votes to leave.
Cameron has just 121 days to sell his agreement. The “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns are not very well organized at the moment, although the high-profile endorsements have given early momentum to the “Leave” movement despite its fragmentation. The “Remain” (Britain Stronger in Europe) campaign struggled to properly organize prior to the EU deal but has used economic and trade statistics to paint a dark picture of the economic effects of a UK exit. The “Remain” campaign has also stated that the United Kingdom will be safer from terrorism, ISIS, and Russia by remaining in the European Union, although the reforms that Cameron sought do not necessarily impact security issues.
As much as Prime Minister Cameron will argue that he has secured a strong agreement with the European Union, the actual details of the agreement will have very little impact on the referendum. The next 121 days will be defined by British domestic politics and personalities, as well as by British perceptions of Europe and their risk appetite in the final days leading up to the referendum (which will take place during the European soccer championship and a massive youth festival). Britons will be more swayed by their feelings toward the Cameron government in general, the health of the British economy, security and migration concerns, and Europe’s general state of affairs. It is for these reasons that the government has opted for an earlier referendum date amidst fears that Europe’s migration crisis will only deepen and that the Greek economic crisis may fully return in the coming months, further negatively impacting public sentiment toward Europe.
Polling numbers vary, but overall they suggest that there remains a stronger pull for the British people to remain in the European Union than to leave. Although many Britons (17 percent) remain undecided, 43 percent wish to remain in the Union while 40 percent would like to leave. Over the past several weeks, there has been an increase in sentiment to leave fueled by disappointment with the EU deal that Cameron negotiated. There is so much about this referendum that Cameron cannot control—a fact that has been clearly evident since he put forward the idea of holding a referendum in January 2013.
As Britons decide the fate of their future relationship with the European Union, the political energy surrounding this referendum will be channeled in several potential directions. Will the energy be turned internally as Conservatives seek to oust David Cameron despite the result of the referendum? Will the momentum surge northward to Scotland by renewing its desire to seek another independence referendum? Already, there are signs that this political energy is spreading to the continent as European opposition parties (such as France’s Front Nationale) are requesting to hold their own referenda on continued membership in the European Union. Other Europeans (notably from Denmark) are expressing interest in striking their own special status “deal” with the Union, which undermines European policy and institutional unity at a critical moment. Regardless of where it is eventually channeled, one thing is clear: this energy will resonate well beyond the borders of the United Kingdom and may well determine the future course of Europe.
Heather Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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