Foreign Policy Blogs

UK Referendum: Could Britain Leave the EU?



By Matthew Barbari

Mass migration to Europe has caused a great deal of debate among member states about the European Union (EU) policy of open borders, especially in the United Kingdom (UK). When Prime Minister David Cameron first announced that the UK would hold a national referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the EU, many both in the UK and Europe thought that this was just a formality for the Prime Minister to appease his conservative coalition supporters in parliament. However, as the June 23 deadline approaches, Euroscepticism is growing in Britain.

A recent poll taken by the Institute of Commercial Management (ICM) has shown that those in favor of leaving the EU has taken a 2% lead over those that wish to stay. Although some 16% remain undecided, this is the first time that the pro-Brexit vote surpassed the pro-EU one. While better educated and wealthier Britons wish to remain in the EU, the working class seeks independence from it.

The issues put forward in favor of Brexit are the large number of EU regulations imposed on the UK, as well as having to pay a “membership fee”. Indeed, many Brexit supporters feel that Angela Merkel, not David Cameron, is running their country, as EU statutes override legislation passed by the British Parliament. There is also the growing distrust of migrants, wrongly associating their surge to the latest the terrorist attacks, but also the slowing of the manufacturing sector employing many blue collar Britons.


Further issues arise from the Eurozone crisis, which is still threatening the economic stability of much of Europe. In this context, many within the Brexit group feel that the UK is unjustly spending a share of the taxpayer’s money rescuing failing European economies like Greece and Portugal. There are also the regulations that the EU forces upon British industries. These regulations have been used by Brexit supporters as an argument that Britain could be a far more economically viable country if it where to leave the EU and drop these inefficient regulations.

Pro-EU groups argue that should Britain leave the EU, it would have to renegotiate trade agreements with the Union and from a much less favorable position than if it were still united with the rest of Europe. Also, while Brexit supporters believe that they would be able to get the same free trade agreement with the EU post-Brexit, they are most likely mistaken. Thus, Britain would have to be more reliant on trade with other economic powerhouses like the U.S. and China, but unable to negotiate as favorable trade agreements as it would if it were still a member of Europe’s single market.

The migrant crisis, squarely blamed on Angela Merkel’s policies, has also fueled divisions within Britain’s population. As the EU requires member states to allow any country member citizen to move and work freely within the Schengen area, wealthier European nations have experienced large immigration inflows. While the economic concerns are certainly powerful, one cannot simply brush aside the fear that many Europeans have associated with recent groups of migrants from the Middle East, especially after the Paris and Brussels attacks. Countries also have struggled to provide adequate housing, medical care, food and job opportunities to these migrants, only further exacerbating xenophobic sentiment. Although the large majority of Brexit supporters do not associate the migrants with ISIS, the EU border policy has allowed for extremists to get into UK .

The Pro-EU camp argues against the notions that Britain could be attacked due to the EU’s open borders policy and instead maintain that immigration helps bring in new workers thus bolstering the British economy, which is currently struggling with low productivity levels. They also argue that Britain already has the harshest immigration policy of any EU state and that they have not accepted nearly as many migrants compared to countries like Germany or Sweden.


The open borders policy also works the other way, allowing British workers to work anywhere in Europe. And while they may agree that the current EU migration policies are not very effective, they assert that any policy developed by the entire European community would be more effective than one adopted unilaterally by the UK.

The best argument against Brexit is that one cannot fully tell what the effects of the UK leaving the EU would be as no member state has ever left the union before. However, there is certainly the feeling that the EU and UK would go through a messy divorce. President Hollande of France warned of “consequences” should the UK vote to leave the EU, which gives the impression that any chance of negotiating a favorable trade agreement is doubtful at best.


There is also the threat that should the UK exit the EU, this would embolden Scotland to seek independence since its  favors remaining in the EU. Many Brexit supporters say that the EU would fall apart without British money and would be forced to agree to any free trade agreement. They also argue that exiting will make sure that the UK is safe from terrorist threats, which seem to be growing within continental Europe. Ultimately, it is up to the British people to decide whether it sees the future of the UK as part of Europe or not.