By Atina Dimitrova
There can be no doubt that Britain’s membership of the European Union has always been a controversial topic. Although the results from the referendum in 1975 were strongly in favour (67.2 per cent voted “yes” for Britain to stay in the European Community (Holmes, 2014: 567)), there was still a discrepancy between the parties. It questioned Britain’s commitment to the integration.
The situation 40 years later has not been changed noticeably – Euroscepticism triggers distinguishable difference between the parties. Many backbenchers in the Conservative Party and UKIP’s progress in the last general election are among the factors which made David Cameron promise to hold a referendum by the end of 2017. It would at least indicate public opinion if not unify the different viewpoints. However, there is a distinct chance of the results being close - the idea of cooperation with other members with robust economies in a single market is widely desired but there are still many bureaucratic and regulatory burdens as well as lack of protection for some of the non-euro countries.
Would-be Brexit is embedded in different parties’ ideologies. Parties like UKIP advocate the outright rejection of integration. Others like the Liberal Democrats are committed to the EU. Even some of the nationalist parties - SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein – embrace integration. The Conservative Party is a symbol of soft Euroscepticism. However, Cameron (2015b) promised to “campaign with all heart and soul to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union". The Labour Party experienced many benefits during some Labour governments and in general it backs the “In” groups.
However, the late integration hampered Britain’s easy adaptation – the UK could not shape the first policies and secure the same economic benefits as founder members, as Leach et al. (2011: 286) affirm. Taking into account the different political and public factions, a close result of the referendum is not to be eliminated. Unquestionably, there are a great number of benefits and disadvantages of Brexit.
The positive aspects are more democracy, stronger border control, less bureaucracy. Firstly, “the British government and the Westminster parliament have had to accept the supremacy of EU law over UK law” (Leach et al., 2011: 280) - the European Commission proposes laws superseding the ones made by individual states’ parliaments. If this changes, the sceptics would be pleased – they want Britain to rely on its domestic policies. Now “the vast majority of small and medium sized firms do not trade with the EU but are restricted by a huge regulatory burden” (The Week, 2015). Brexit would remove this. A further point is Simon Hix’s statement (cited in Leach et al., 2011: 284) that “over 80% of rules governing the production, distribution and exchange of goods, services and capital in the British market are decided by the EU”. Brexit would obliterate all these regulations which cost £33 billion a year (Wolfson, 2015). Nugent (2006: 25) outlines that Britain is also reluctant to accept the idea of being dependent on other governments. What is more, some countries use the EU market’s expansion as a way to regain control of their economy and take advantages of other countries’ strength as Holmes (2014: 565) outlines. UK bailouts constitute a safeguard for investments of countries in difficult times. This would no longer affect Britain’s economy after Brexit.
Furthermore, even the UK’s unwillingness to join the single currency shows the lack of total support. These viewpoints are in general directly represented by the Euroscepticism wave. However, certain issues are backed up by some of the usual supporters of integration too. For example, problematic immigration leads to a heated discussion even among partisans. Cameron (2015a) in his letter to the European Council President states: “Our net migration is running at over 300,000 a year. That is not sustainable.” Brexit can successfully tackle this with introducing new restrictions.
Would-be Brexit also means no longer a necessity for Britain to pay the large membership fee of around £55m per day (Sky, 2015). It is expected that Britain would add at least 1.6% to GDP by 2030 if the burdens are removed and economic migration is tackled properly (Wolfson, 2015). What is more, the institutional complexity, the procedures for improving new legislation and the annual budget and the necessity of translators contribute to bureaucracy which people on the Eurosceptic side try to avoid thanks to Brexit.
However, there are many proponents of the EU too. A vital drawback of Brexit would be the lack of full free movement of people - the whole union’s fundament. A potential change in the policy could lead to strong resistance from some leaders of other countries interested in working with Britain. The UK would no longer be an easily accessible option for employees. Sky (2015) illustrates the significance of the question: “As far back as the year 2000, it has been claimed that three million jobs rely directly on our membership of the European Union.” These restrictions would cause longer bureaucratic processes for both departing and arriving people. Even the education sector and the holiday-makers would be affected because of the more time-consuming procedures. Furthermore, direct gains through social and regional funding would not be available either. It would influence especially the agricultural sector significantly – EU subsidies have been highly important for British farmers as stated in Leach et al. (2011: 284). Moreover, Britain would no longer benefit from free trade - losing membership would mean not having a say over trading rules. Unquestionably, Britain would lose the largest single trading block in the world which is more than £400bn a year (BBC, 2015b). Although the UK would be able to establish trade agreements with non-EU countries, cooperation with Britain’s biggest trading partners so far - France and Germany - is expected to be less effective. This easy and cheap export of British goods to Europe would fade away. As (BBC, 2015b) outlines another disadvantage might be the loss of Britain’s influence on issues like environment, security and trade – some of the countries outside the EU like the US prefer working with Britain due to its link to the European market. This interest would be less powerful. The EU would lose its second biggest contributor to the budget and its foremost military power along with France (Cameron, 2015b). Banking groups may move their headquarters elsewhere which may cause unnecessary burdens. An additional drawback highlighted by Sky (2015) is the lack of opportunity for Britain to use the European Arrest Warrant which lessens the transfer of prisoners to their home countries.
In The Week (2015) it is stated that “Britons narrowly favour leaving the EU... The YouGov survey revealed that 40% of people would vote in favour of a "Brexit", 38% supported continued membership” (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Brexit voting intention tracker (YouGov, 2015)
This shows how close the results might be. In addition, the idea of Britain’s capability to negotiate its own deals outside the union (a closer relation with countries like the US and China) is more topical now. It is another hindrance towards full embrace of the EU. The loss of the initial enthusiasm for integration can be traced back to the beginning. Even Margaret Thatcher moved from total support and became critical because of the disparity between Britain’s contribution and its receipts as Holmes (2014: 568) presents. However, Winston Churchill (1946) pointed out the strong respect towards unifying - “We must build a kind of United States of Europe… The structure… will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important”.
As history shows, when the Conservatives in 2001 “campaigned a manifesto hostile to Europe” (Leach et al., 2011: 283), they lost. So now Cameron has introduced a different strategy presenting four issues to be improved so as to defend the UK’s role. “Britain’s membership was a Conservative achievement” (Leach et al., 2011: 269) and Cameron as a follower of this concept tries to help the UK stay in the EU. An important demand is protection for non-euro countries. Other concerns are the single market’s extension and some of the excessive bureaucratic regulations’ cutting down (BBC, 2015a). New changes towards immigration and Britain’s sovereignty in this “ever closer union” are expected too.
Furthermore, media coverage has always been highly important - it sometimes exerts influence on public opinion. Wilkes and Wring (1998: 185) show that initially the British press was vaguely “pro-community”, then it unanimously supported the integration and finally Euroscepticism dominated in the 1990s. Now the Eurosceptic tone is strong too.
To recapitulate, we can draw a parallel between the early controversial path to membership, marked with plenty of political and public factions, and the current situation. Despite the different viewpoints towards Brexit, there is every likelihood that national independence and parliamentary sovereignty are Britain’s priorities. They will be taken into account in the referendum as well as the usual British resistance towards the EU’s use of economic means to achieve political goals. However, there are many arguments from both “In” and “Out” groups so it is tough to expect a substantial majority on one side especially when the internal political division is very tangible.
Baker, D., Seawright, D. (1998) Britain for and against Europe. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
BBC (2015a) ‘UK and the EU: Better off out or in?’. BBC News. Friday 22nd May. [Online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32793642
BBC (2015b) ‘The four key points from David Cameron's EU letter’. BBC News. Tuesday 10th November. [Online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-34779250
Cameron, D. (2015a) The EU letter to the European Council President. [Online] Available from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexitvote/2015/11/10/dear-donald-the-text-of-david-camerons-letter-todonald-tusk/
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Nugent, N. (2006) The government and politics of the European Union. 6th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, MacMillan
Sky (2015) ‘EU Membership: Reasons For And Against Leaving’. Sky News. Monday 12th October. [Online] Available from: http://news.sky.com/story/1488832/eu-membership-reasons-for-andagainst-leaving
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Wolfson, S. (2015) ‘Is Britain better off in or out of Europe’. The Telegraph. Monday 23rd March [Online] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/11488929/Is-Britainbetter-off-in-or-out-of-Europe.html
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London