On the 23rd of June 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held a referendum on its membership to the European Union (EU). The turnout was the highest ever in the UK : 72%. Incredible, yet not surprising as it deals with the future of the country. The citizens of the UK had to choose between staying in or leaving the EU. With 51,9% of the votes, the “leave” won, especially in England and Wales while the votes for the “remain” took over Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. However, many highlight the fact that the referendum is not legally binding – yet it is definitely socially binding. As it was not a poll but rather the decision of the people, politicians cannot put aside its results. In order to start the process of leaving the EU, the Member State shall invoke the article 50 of the Treaty on the EU on the withdrawal of any Member State. However, the new Prime Minister Theresa May (who succeeded to David Cameron (who was in favour of remaining in the EU) after his resignation) predicted the date of the withdrawal of the UK not to occur before 2019.
Economy, immigration and sovereignty : the main issues of the IN vs OUT campaign
The dispute between the parties of the “remain” and “leave” were based on three principal arguments. Both parties saw positively and negatively the effects of the UK’s membership to the EU on the national economy, on the growth of immigration since its accession and on its sovereignty.
While pro-Brexit supporters depicted the EU as an institution sucking endlessly a huge amount of pounds that could directly go into the public services, anti-Brexit people were persuaded that the EU added to the UK’s prosperity. EU countries are still the biggest buyers of English goods – being a member state of the EU provides companies registered in the UK with an utter access to over 500 million consumers in a tariff-free trade area. In a nutshell, it is easier and cheaper to sell in the EU market. As a consequence, if the UK leaves the EU, it leaves this golden market. However, it was quite unexpected to see that the British economy was doing fine a few weeks after the announcement of the victory of the “leave”: the fact that the pound lost 10% of its value was counterbalanced with the increase of the number of tourists, especially from outside Europe. Against all odds, it seems that the UK’s economy could still manage its survival without having a direct access to this Eldorado that is the European single market. But it shall be noted that in the years to come, the uncertainty of the status of the UK in the EU could frighten investors. In addition, the trade barriers between the UK and the EU are likely to lead to job losses – at least three million of jobs in the UK are linked with the trade with the EU. The anti-Brexiters also tried to convince the population that the cost of living is lower with the UK being part of the EU (e.g. flights, roaming charges, healthcare in other EU countries). Nevertheless, in order to compensate for this eventual loss, pro-Brexiters believe in the possibility of the UK having its own trade deals with the EU, following the example of Norway in the European Free Trade Association (yet Norway is said to be against its attempt to rejoin the EFTA since the UK, as a big country in terms of population and thus of power, would shift the balance). Regarding trade deals with other major economies, the idea of establishing a free trade area within the Commonwealth is a project close to the hearts of the parties that advocated leaving the EU. The UK was unable to negotiate its own free trade agreement while being a member state of the EU.
Ukip’s controversial poster campaign was launched in June 2016. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Concerning immigration, it was a piece of cake for pro-Brexiters: the best argument in order to incite people to vote against the EU is to persuade them of its responsibility in the constant rise of the number of immigrants in the UK. It was a recurrent argument of Nigel Farage, the former leader of the eurosceptic UKIP (UK Independence Party). Yet the UK has been privileged among the Member States of the EU – it won exemption from several EU asylum rules. Moreover, the former Prime Minister David Cameron assured that the UK will not accept any quotas of refugees. Compared to other Members States of the EU, the UK does not directly suffer from the migration crisis. So far, only illegal immigration (coming especially from the Calais Jungle) can be considered as a problem – even so, Le Touquet treaty under which British border checks are carried out on French soil has been restated between France and the UK. The idea of completely controlling the borders can be related to the sovereignty of a country. Another famous argument in favour of a Brexit that was long ago advocated by Eurosceptics is the loss of sovereignty. The implementation of the huge amount of EU regulations is seen by the population as a diktat from the EU, as well as a loss of money and time. For example, farmers blame the endless bureaucracy of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy). The British wish to have more of its own laws. Being a member of the EU now means that it undermines its national sovereignty.
The arguments of those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU have not completely convinced the majority of the population. It appears that the increased opportunities given by the EU (for instance the right to live, work, study in another EU member state) are not the priorities anymore. Leaving the EU may jeopardise the national security as the UK will not have access to the European criminal database. The UK will not be safer anymore without its membership to Europol. Nevertheless, these arguments were not sufficiently convincing in the eyes of the majority of the voters, unlike the arguments of pro-Brexiters. The pro-EU arguments are not popular anymore. Eventually, the ‚ultimate Eurosceptic fantasy’ became real.
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