The Prime Minister has returned from the Brussels European Council noting good progress in the renegotiation of the terms of our membership of the European Union (EU). Although there will still be difficulties, the Prime Minister wants a deal and he is in a hurry to do so. It seems a deal will very likely be reached at the 18-19 February European Council meeting.
Allowing for a four month formal referendum campaign, this would suggest the likely referendum date is Thursday 23 June 2016.
Referendums are risky and can easily go wrong. We face a very close referendum campaign.
Even if some recent polls show “remain in” just a few points behind, we are even further behind because:
- Many leavers are aged 55 plus, and will turn out and vote;
- Among the undecided third, ‘soft’ pro-Europeans are often of working age and are less likely to turn out;
- The referendum franchise is not democratic – taxpaying citizens of 24 EU member states working in the UK and 16 and 17 year-olds cannot vote;
- Few of the two million British expatriates living across the EU, who will be adversely affected by a Brexit, are registered to vote (only 0.3% according to the Office of National Statistics);
- The leavers have been waiting for this referendum for years – they are passionate, time-rich and well organised. In contrast, the IN campaign has had to start from scratch after the May election;
- The leavers, unlike in 1975, are better funded. It is easier for some eccentric and hedge fund billionaires to part with a million pounds than mainstream companies which have to agree activities and donations within complex governance structures;
- The leavers are having some success muzzling mainstream business;
- If the referendum did take place in 2017, an electorate suffering from mid-term blues could use the referendum to kick the Government in the teeth;
- The referendum could take place during another period of media images showing migrants and refugees arriving on European shores or battling through its external borders. Even though few will make it to the UK as we are outside the Schengen free movement area, media coverage rarely makes this point, and many voters wrongly associate the crisis as another cost of EU membership.
There are however some causes for optimism:
- Once the Prime Minister (hopefully!) secures a deal, the political vacuum at the heart of our membership will have been filled: the Government will recommend the deal, and voters will focus more on the pros of our membership (and not less salient negatives such as the refugee crisis);
- The referendum campaign will offer opportunities for a more equal public hearing of both sides of the debate, something which has not happened for decades;
- Closer scrutiny of the pros and cons of EU membership should expose the simplistic falsehoods of Eurosceptic arguments;
- Voters in referenda tend to opt for the status quo, and shy away from a leap into the dark. Brits are not quitters, especially as Eurosceptics offer no viable option for a UK outside the EU;
- Ultimately, many voters will decide based on the perceived impact on their pockets.
Above all, our key arguments are strong, although complex:
- It is better to lead in Europe, than leave it;
- We shouldn’t take the benefits of our EU membership for granted, in particular post-war peace in Europe;
- Our membership creates jobs, and allows the freedom to travel, work and study throughout Europe;
- Our ageing population needs EU citizens to help pay our pensions, fill skills shortages, and to keep the NHS, and our businesses staffed;
- We know what remain offers, but we have no idea what leaving looks like;
- If we leave the EU, it will be the end of the United Kingdom (the SNP will certainly use a leave vote as the pretext for Scotland to leave the UK).
Remaining in the EU is the patriotic choice – it is the best option for the UK. Whichever cause(s) we hold particularly dear to our hearts, whether it is protecting the environment, civil liberties, workplace rights, jobs, and LGBT rights, and/or enhancing our security, London in a little England outside the EU will be less a fair and prosperous City.
As citizens of this great city, we need to stand up and make our voice heard and ensure we vote next June, particularly as Euroscepticism is strong outside London. To misquote Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of Euroscepticism is that good people do nothing.
by Nick Hopkinson