Today, David Cameron announced the date of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union: Thursday 23rd June. This follows many hours of negotiation on the UK’s position within the organisation. With 123 days to go until the referendum takes place, here’s what you need to know about the upcoming vote…
The European Union (EU) is an international organisation, made up of 28 European countries. The group was founded in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community to prevent further conflict in Europe. The ECSC was the first example of a supranational organisation, with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg and West Germany as founding members. The organisation evolved to include economic integration, with the UK joining the group in 1973. 20 years after, the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union and also led to the creation of the single currency, the Euro. The most recent treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, created a President of the European Council.
Countries that are members of the EU pay membership fees, which vary depending on the countries’ population size, which pay for running costs and also for EU subsidies for farming and fishing among others in member states. This money is managed by the European Commission, made up of 28 commissioners (one from each member state). Citizens of member countries are, for the most part, European citizens as well and vote in elections to the European Parliament. The ‘EuroParl’ votes on laws and regulations proposed by the Commission. Laws passed by the European Parliament apply to all 28 member states and comprises of 751 MEPs, 73 of which are elected from the United Kingdom.
WHAT WILL THE REFERENDUM QUESTION BE?
The question that will be posed to voters is unknown at this time. The original suggestion made in 2013 by the Conservatives was ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?‘. However, the wording of this question was considered as leaning too much in favour of the status quo. The Electoral Commission, which approves the wording of referendum questions, proposed an alternative wording: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?‘. Downing Street has approved this wording but it is still unknown whether this will be the wording on ballot papers in June.
WHO CAN VOTE IN THE REFERENDUM?
British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK and over the age of 18 can vote. This also includes citizens of Gibraltar and members of the House of Lords. However, citizens of the UK’s Crown Dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) will not be eligible to vote on June 23.
WHAT AGREEMENT DID CAMERON REACH WITH THE EU?
Since negotiation began at the start of this month, Cameron has agreed a package with changes to Britain’s membership of the EU. They are:
- Child benefit payments to migrant workers for children overseas recalculated to match cost of living in home country
- Limits on in-work benefits for EU migrants for first four years of residency, known as an ’emergency brake’ – this can be applied when the UK is under ‘exceptional’ levels of migration, but must be removed after seven years
- Guarantee that Britain will not be forced to join the Euro, with any UK money used to bailout eurozone nations to be reimbursed
- Safeguards for Britain’s financial sector to protect it from eurozone legislation
- All EU institutions and members must make efforts to strengthen the single market and make ‘concrete steps’ towards better regulation, including removing ‘red tape’
- Veto for the UK from any moves towards ‘ever closer union’, which will be incorporated in any EU treaty change
- ‘Red card’ on EU legislation, allowing proposed legislation by the European Parliament to be rethought if 55% of national parliaments object
- Removal of free movement rights for citizens outside of the EU who marry a citizen within it, as well as new powers to remove free movement from citizens believed to be a security risk
WHO WANTS BRITAIN TO STAY IN THE EU AND WHY?
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have all stated their intent to campaign for Britain to remain within the European Union. Some Conservatives also support staying, but the party itself is currently neutral. They believe that EU membership is beneficial to the UK, by making trade with EU members easier, and fuelling economic growth by allowing immigrants, who are keen to work, to live and work here. This also, they argue, helps pay for public services. In their eyes, a ‘Brexit’ would result in a diminished status for Britain on the world stage and would threaten the economic and national security.
WHO WANTS BRITAIN TO LEAVE IN THE EU AND WHY?
UKIP is the most vocal political party supporting British withdrawal from the European Union, alongside some Conservative MPs (although the party itself is neutral). They believe that the UK is held back by EU membership and is threatened by encroaching federalism, with the ultimate goal being a ‘United States of Europe’. Those who advocate leaving claim that EU regulation stifles British business and industry and that membership fees could be better spent on public services. Free movement is also an issue for those wanting to leave, who claim that the lack of control over migration causes increasing pressure on the health service and the welfare state.
Leaving the EU will be a massive decision, and there has been some criticism that a ‘Brexit’ could potentially leave the UK in a worse position. For example, a Norway model (where Britain leaves but joins the European Free Trade Association) could result in Britain paying membership fees to the EU and abiding by EU law but without representation in the European Commission or the European Parliament. However, those who want to leave say that a Swiss or Canadian model could be adopted, where a Free Trade Agreement is reached with the EU but without membership of EFTA.
The leave camp argue that withdrawal would result in a jobs boom and will result in an increase in GDP of roughly 2% by 2030, thanks to the removal of red tape and EU regulation, but those who want the UK to stay deny this. They claim that millions of jobs will move to other European countries, with the car industry most at risk. They also say that the economy could contract by as much as 9% by 2030 if Britain were to leave.
Similar to that of the Scottish independence referendum, it is very hard to say whether Britain would be better off staying or leaving, but this is an area that will face a lot of scrutiny as June approaches.
WHAT DO THE OPINION POLLS SAY?
Public opinion is very much divided on the issue. Opposition to UK membership peaked in November 2012 at 56% but has fallen significantly since then. Polls since the general election have shown a slim majority in favour of remaining within the EU, with some exceptions, with a recent poll by ICM showing 52% supporting EU membership, with 48% against (when undecided was removed). However, now that campaigning will kick off, expect polling to show the two sides neck-and-neck, in a similar fashion to the Scottish independence debate in 2014.
A Channel 4 News ‘fact check’ found that those with more qualifications are more likely to vote to stay. Citing British Social Attitudes, they found that 78% with a degree support British membership, compared to 35% among those with no qualifications. They is also an age divide, with the British Election Study finding that only 21% of under 55s support a ‘Brexit’ compared to 44% for over 55s. As well as this, support for EU membership is stronger in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with 64% and 75% respectively. This is compared to England and Wales, where a much smaller majority (52% and 55%) support staying.