To Stay or Not to Stay? The Brexit Question

June 6, 2016 2:21 pm


By Liliana Dragnev

Abstract: As the 23 June date for the referendum on British membership in the European Union approaches, polls are showing an uncomfortably close split between those wanting to stay and leave. A few years in the making, this vote could throw the Union and the United Kingdom into uncharted territory. With both sides campaigning strongly, debates that will irreversibly impact Britain are arising. Regardless of the outcome, change is on the horizon. If the UK public votes to leave, the consequences – particularly economic and financial ones – will be quite high. It is now up to the public to decide if those costs are worth the benefits that could occur through the unknown.

‘An exit vote would require a major reorganization of the UK’s place in the world’.([1]– Richard G. Whitman, Director of Global Europe Centre

For the first time since its founding, the European Union may actually shrink. On 15 April, the official campaign on the British referendum vote about membership in the EU was launched. Every day since, the frequent polls conducted have shown the two sides growing ever closer in numbers – with a YouGov poll placing the figures at 41% wishing to remain, 41% wanting a leave, and 17% uncertain.([2]) A telephone poll by The Guardian from 31 May has even shown the leave campaign 4% ahead.([3]) While polls inevitably vary by source, the results are nonetheless consistently close. People who may once have viewed the Brexit, as it has been dubbed, as an empty threat that could not come to fruition have instead realized there is a real possibility of a United Kingdom officially disjoined from its European partners.

The two sides of the campaign are escalating their efforts as the 23 June vote approaches, and much media attention is being given to their impassioned arguments. Yet, there is also an increasing complexity to the issue as those voices chiming in increase – one that can make it difficult to distinguish the fine details and the big picture of the upcoming referendum. Ultimately, the consequences of this vote’s outcome will reach far beyond the British shores, so it is vital that not only voters, but everyone, understand what is at stake with the decision. Particularly because the UK will always have the option to leave the Union, but ‘it will not be granted the choice to rejoin after it has left’, a break from the EU now would be irreversible.([4]) In fact, the very occurrence of this vote and negotiations period leading up to it, has meant that Britons will experience changes regardless of the result of their ballot. For better or worse, there is no going back.

Growing Frustration: Britain’s Path to Referendum

Since joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the United Kingdom has consistently sought to balance EU interests with its own parliamentary supremacy, taking a diplomatic stance in favor of market deregulation and enlargement over political union and entanglement.([5]) Yet, during this past decade, proclamations of an ‘ever closer union’ have been increasing,([6]) with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) making judicially activist decisions that reaffirmed the true primacy of EU law to national law.([7]) British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party, concerned for what they viewed as a rising impingement on the UK’s sovereignty, promised to hold a referendum – and won the 2015 election on that platform.([8])

Simultaneously, Mr. Cameron launched talks with Brussels in order to address some of the salient points of contention. On 19 February, he renegotiated the status of Britain within the EU in four important areas: attaining a promise of more free-trade deals; gaining permission to cut payment of benefits for children remaining in the home countries of migrants; enhanced observer status in Eurozone meetings to prevent exploitation of those not on the currency; and, most importantly, receiving an official exemption for the country from the EU goal of ‘ever closer union’, along with a ‘red card’ for national parliaments ‘whereby support from 55% of them could block EU laws’.([9])

This attainment of a special position will impact the UK even if it remains; perceptions of the country have been unfavorably impacted, shaking its diplomatic strength. Britain is now also sidelined with regards to more developed forms of integration in Europe’s future, throwing its long-standing leadership position into uncertainty.([10]) Still, these concessions were enough to convince Mr. Cameron to remain. However, fears over the escalating economic troubles and migration issues in Europe have caused other Britons to wonder if leaving the Union would allow them to tackle national problems more freely.([11])

Two Sides to Every Story: Prominent Arguments of the Campaigns

While the PM’s new arrangements in regards to sovereignty and national laws have provided ease on a major dividing issue for some people, Brexiteers – the moniker for people pushing for exit – nonetheless believe that only a split with the EU would free Britain from the ECJ’s grasps and help it regain full sovereignty. Certainly, national parliaments have historically been weak in term of EU legislation, calling its democracy into question. This renegotiation addresses and corrects for that. Mr. Cameron has wisely warned voters of the dangers of pursuing ‘the “illusion” of sovereignty’.([12]) Indeed, as a member of NATO, the United Nations, and other regional and global bodies, the United Kingdom is still party to nearly 700 international treaties that erode their sovereignty but provide mutual gains and an international influence.([13]) Leaving the Union would not lift the obligations by other bodies, and a path of full isolation is unreasonable for such a globalized economy

Another highly cited claim of those who want to leave concerns EU membership costs. The contribution in 2015 was £17.8 billion, money that Brexiteers say could be placed back into the National Health Service (NHS), education, and various other programs. However, as the stay campaigners counter, in order for the UK to access the EU single market for trade, it would still be required to make budget contributions. Since most of Britain’s exports go to the Union’s other 27 members, retaining that market is vital.([14])

Immigration has been a growing area of concern in recent years, as well. The Paris and Brussels attacks have only amplified the passion with which this particular debate is fought. The free movement of people, as well as the right to live and work in any member state, has led to a net migration of 184,000 EU citizens into the UK each year. Alongside claims that such movement makes it easier for terrorists to enter Britain, the Leave campaign says that these migrants strain public services and drive down wages of UK nationals. Meanwhile, the Remain side explains that EU immigrants in particular pay more in taxes than they take out, and Mr. Cameron has already renegotiated limitations to migrant benefits. Furthermore, such free movement would likely remain a precondition to single market access, and membership in Europol allows intelligence sharing that can limit terrorism and other crime.([15])

Those in the Remain camp are adamant that EU membership carries more benefits than costs. Yet, the unfailingly close polling demonstrates that both sides are reaching the public, making this vote an unpredictable one.

An Unprecedented Move: Facts and Unknowns of EU Exits

A potential leave carries with it great uncertainty. Never before has a country chosen to enact the provision of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union that allows such action. In the event that a state exits, there is a two-year time span under which the conditions of the leave are established – though for the Danish dependency of Greenland, which left in 1985, it took three years despite its small economic size and influence; so, the process would likely be longer for Britain. Furthermore, the new arrangement would be carried out without the participation of the UK, which would leave it at the whims of the other members. Perhaps a favorable deal can be reached, but ‘the incentive for other EU countries is not to act with generosity’ and use a potential Brexit as a warning against any disillusioned members who consider the same path.([16]) The odds are therefore not in Britain’s favor.

Every Action has a Reaction: Post-Brexit Possibilities

Naturally, a curiosity has grown about what implications a Brexit would have. The economic projections for Great Britain, for one, are alarming. Despite claims by some prominent Leave members that the economy would recover after an initial shock and be better off in the long run, a thorough and analytic Treasury report has shown otherwise. The likely trade alternatives for Britain – membership in the European Economic Area, bilateral trade agreements, or shared membership through the World Trade Organization (WTO) – would cause an average gross domestic product loss of 3.8%, 6.2%, and 7.5% under each respective scenario. In fact, these figures may be optimistic because they assume no EU budget contribution or reduction in immigration, which are both highly likely to occur. Furthermore, any EU regulations that would be lifted carry little value since the UK is substantially less regulated than other similarly large economies, and regulations that are burdensome are of national not Union making.([17]) A decision to leave would carry potentially steep economic consequences, which some Eurosceptics feel is a worthy price to exchange for the sovereignty they seek.([18])

Britain’s financial heart, the City of London, may also face heavy repercussions from an exit. Since it relies on such a global scale of financial activity, the city would by no means crumble. Nevertheless, it currently serves as a European intermediary, where companies can set up subsidiaries and branch out to the EU market. In the event of an exit, that leverage would be gone. Professor Alain Trannoy of Aix-Marseille School of Economics explained how a Brexit would leave London in a strange position: ‘Choosing London would [become] a bit like picking Toronto as a base to penetrate the US market’.([19])

Finally, its potential withdrawal from the Union would send shock waves much further out than the United Kingdom. Scotland, for instance, leans strongly pro-EU, with its dominant party stating that a Scottish independence referendum would ‘almost certainly’ be called for and won.([20]) The Irish have also stood vocally against the Brexit, for fear that the fragile peace that is maintained in Northern Ireland ‘could be tested to a breaking point should the UK-Irish common travel area have to end’.([21]) Additionally, transatlantic relations could be reshaped. While NATO may preserve the partnership, the United States might be tempted to set its sights on Germany for a special relationship and link into European matters.([22]) Years of negotiations after a split, though, would leave both the UK and other member states less capable of fully addressing major global concerns, so other world powers may turn elsewhere for cooperation in those matters.([23]) The foreign policy clout of the European Union and its increased strength in global diplomacy ‘would be severely diminished were Britain no longer in the club’.([24]) This British decision has the very real potential to influence broader international affairs; hopefully those placing their votes on 23 June take those of us with no say into consideration.


On 23 June, once all the votes are in and counted, the official announcement will be delivered at Manchester Town Hall. There is a possibility that this race will result in simply a close scare, with Britain remaining in the European Union. Even this would mean that the Prime Minister’s renegotiated status for the UK will come into effect and give the country exemption from any future political integration. The other possibility will bring about an even bigger unknown. If the Brexit comes into fruition, it will be history in the making. Beyond that, no amount of speculation can fully predict what future would lay ahead, what will come from the precedent, or just how far the impact will extend. The fact that this decision rests on UK nationals notwithstanding, actually leaving the Union will mean a large extent of continental power over the island’s new arrangements. Both hidden opportunities and unthinkable consequences may exist. One way or another, change is coming.



[1] Richard G. Whitman, ‘Brexit or Bremain: What Future for the UK’s European Diplomatic Strategy?’, International Affairs, vol. 92, no. 3, 2016, p. 529.

[2] ‘Brexit Poll Tracker’, Financial Times, 31 May 2016, available at brexit-polling/ (accessed on 2 June 2016).

[3] Heather Stewart, ‘UK Voters Leaning Towards Brexit, Guardian Poll Reveals’, The Guardian, 31 May 2016, available at (accessed 2 June 2016).

[4] Martin Wolf, ‘Britain’s Friends are Right to Fear Brexit’, Financial Times, 19 April 2016, available at (accessed 26 May 2016).

[5] Richard Whitman, op. cit., p. 511.

[6] ‘Dreaming of Sovereignty’, The Economist, 19 March 2016, available at britain/21695056-talk-taking-back-power-may-be-delusional-more-democracy-not-dreaming-sovereignty (accessed 25 May 2016).

[7] Peter Foster, ‘How Does the EU Impinge on British Sovereignty and if the UK Votes ‘Leave’, How Much Do We Take Back?’, 19 May 2016, available at (accessed 31 May 2016).

[8] ‘Dreaming of Sovereignty’, op. cit.

[9] ‘A Change of Status’, The Economist, 27 February 2016, available at briefing/21693569-britains-prime-minister-got-his-dealbut-it-will-make-little-difference-change-status (accessed 25 May 2016).

[10] Richard Whitman, op. cit., pp. 520-522.

[11] ‘The Brexit Delusion’, The Economist, 27 February 2016, available at briefing/21693568-david-cameron-will-struggle-win-referendum-britains-eu-membership-if-he-loses (accessed 26 May 2016).

[12] ‘Dreaming of Sovereignty’, op. cit.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] ‘UK and the EU: Better Off Out or In?’, BBC News, 26 May 2016, available at news/uk-politics-32793642 (accessed 30 May 2016).

[15] Ibidem.

[16] ‘The Brexit Delusion’, op. cit.

[17] Martin Wolf, op. cit.

[18] ‘The Real Danger of Brexit’, The Economist, 27 February 2016, available at news/leaders/21693584-leaving-eu-would-hurt-britainand-would-also-deal-terrible-blow-west-real-danger (accessed 26 May 2016).

[19] Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, ‘Brexit Threatens London’s Status as Corporate Hub, Study Warns’, Financial Times, 24 May 2016, available at 5c3951c0-20be-11e6-aa98-db1e01fabc0c. html#axzz4AQUTvaeu (accessed 29 May 2016).

[20] Paul Richardson and Dhananjay Tripathi, ‘Brexit Debates’, Economic & Political Weekly, vol. 51, no. 7, 2016, p. 28.

[21] Tim Oliver and Michael John Williams, ‘Special Relationships in Flux: Brexit and the Future of the US-EU and US-UK Relationships’, International Affairs, vol. 92, no. 3, 2016, pp. 557.

[22] Ibidem, pp. 556-559.

[23] Richard Whitman, op. cit., pp. 522-523.

[24] ‘The Brexit Delusion’, op. cit.