The EU referendum for foreigners

This article was written in English for an international audience, and originally published in a Hebrew translation on the Israeli blog ‘Local Call’.

On the 23rd of June, the United Kingdom will go to the polls in a referendum to decide whether it will become the first country ever to leave the European Union. While many EU member nations express a degree of frustration or distrust towards the European project, British voters have long been particularly widespread and resentful.

In some ways this is surprising, since the UK has historically negotiated highly favourable terms within the EU: neighbouring UK and Ireland are the only states to have negotiated exemptions from the Schengen Area, within which border controls have been abolished, while UK and Denmark are the only countries to have negotiated exemptions from the Euro, a common currency. Moreover, UK and Poland are the only member states effectively exempt from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, whereas UK and Ireland enjoy case-by-case opt-out rights on legislation in the area of freedom, security and justice. Other privileges include further guarantees negotiated by the Prime Minister in the run-up to the referendum.

It is also strange that EU membership is being put to a referendum given the fact that many voters are openly admitting that they do not understand the issue well enough to make an informed decision. Some are bemoaning the lack of “unbiased” factual information, and one can hardly blame them — nobody really knows what the consequences of leaving would be, and many of the people campaigning on both sides are spreading factually inaccurate claims.

The scale of ignorance and confusion should not be underestimated: one opinion poll even showed that 23% of people who expect not to vote are “not sure” whether the UK is currently in the EU or not, and that 2% of Leave voters believe the UK is not currently in the EU (which raises the question of what they think “Leave” means).

Despite all this, the referendum campaign has been both close-fought and divisive. This is partly an ideological gulf: for instance, right-wing tabloid readers are most likely to vote Leave, whereas the left-leaning Guardian’s readers are overwhelmingly in support of the EU. But the issue is more complex than a simple left-right divide. For instance, the governing right-wing Conservative Party is deeply split: the Prime Minister is a leading figure in the Remain campaign, but serving ministers and the former London Mayor — often assumed to be the next party leader and PM — are leading the Leave campaign.

Six days before the referendum, 464 MPs were affiliated with Remain, while 151 were siding with Leave (35 had yet to declare their allegiance publicly). The Remain camp included 218 Labour MPs (with just 10 favouring Leave) and most of the minor parties; Remain also included 172 Conservatives, as compared to the 132 who are supporting Leave. However, the referendum has seen ruptures between politicians and their electoral bases, since the latter lean somewhat more towards Leave: in contrast to the breakdown of MPs, public opinion polls have often run close to a 50–50 split, discounting undecided voters.

Polls also show that support is divided generationally, educationally, and regionally: younger people and those with more advanced educations are more likely to support EU membership, as are voters outside of England (Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, in order of EU support) and Londoners compared to other English voters (particularly those in post-industrial regions such as the Midlands).

In part, these demographic differences are driven by a mixture of economic fears. Firstly, there is the traditional right-wing narrative that immigrants are driving down wages for the lowly-skilled and taking jobs from British workers. This is coupled with the myth that immigrants claim welfare payments in swathes and do not pay taxes. These claims are inaccurate, but plausible and galling to many in the wake of a huge recession from which working-class living conditions have recovered very slowly for many.

Another central economic issue is the worry that immigrants represent a significant burden on public services such as healthcare, and that the UK does not have the infrastructure to maintain its population at current rates of growth. It is easy to see how a government obsessed with ‘austerity’ has legitimised this narrative by underfunding public services to breaking point, particularly in poorer regions where they receive fewer votes.

The Leave campaign have exploited this neoliberal policy choice, adding to the economic concerns of the working class by emphasising the cost of EU membership and claiming that the money could be better spent on public services — an ironic tactic given that many of the same politicians were complicit in the very underfunding and incremental privatisation that created the problems they propose to fix.

There is also a small contingent of socialist parties and journalists has been calling for a ‘Left Exit’ based primarily on a critique of the EU as a neoliberal project that would shackle any future socialist British government (though some of the prominent advocates of this stance have reversed their positions recently). This position has attracted 4 out of 5 members of the Labour Party’s Socialist Campaign Group, including veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner. However, they stand in contrast to the attitude of much of the left, which generally sees the EU as a bulwark protecting workers’ rights and a significant boon to migrants; many also worry that a Leave vote would legitimise the far right.

Unfortunately, the referendum does appear to be emboldening and embedding the right, with xenophobic views aired more readily. Even outsider right-wing parties have become more normalised by the media, since they form a passionate and dedicated constituency of the Leave campaign. Dog-whistle racism also formed a central plank in the Conservative campaign for London Mayor, which overlapped with the referendum period. The Labour candidate, a Muslim, was branded “radical” and associated with anti-Semitism by a smear campaign.

Moreover, official Leave leaflets have menaced voters with the threat of immigration from “countries like Albania and Turkey”, both majority-Muslim nations. One poster published by the conservative and anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party even appears to be based on Nazi propaganda imagery. This association is particularly chilling in light of the news that a woman with a swastika tattoo has been volunteering for Leave.

The most extreme and tragic example of this association with the extreme right is the recent politically-motivated assassination of a Jo Cox, a Labour Party MP supporting the Remain campaign. This event has rocked the nation, which has not seen the assassination of an MP for over 25 years; while Cox is the 8th serving MP to be assassinated in UK history, she is only the second in which the motive was not Irish republicanism (the first being the 1812 killing of a Prime Minister).

Cox’s killing is indicative of the xenophobia — particularly Islamophobia — associated with some elements of the Leave campaign. She was known primarily for her work on the Syrian civil war and Palestine: in particular, she had expressed support for BDS and argued that the UK should accept more Syrian refugees. The alleged killer appears to have multiple associations to the far right, and witnesses reported that he shouted either “Britain First” (the name of an Islamophobic far-right political party supporting the Leave campaign) or “put Britain first” during the attack. In a court appearance, he gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

Clearly, many are concerned about the ramifications of the referendum for British multiculturalism, but this is not the only danger. The referendum also lies on other political fault lines: Scotland has a sizeable national independence movement (achieving nearly 45% in favour of leaving the UK in a late-2014 referendum), but it is also one of the most pre-EU regions. In fact, all 54 MPs from the Scottish National Party (the largest party in Scotland, who also form the minority government of the semi-autonomous Scottish Parliament) is supporting the Remain campaign.

Some commentators are predicting that if the UK leaves the EU, Scotland could leave the UK and re-join the EU as an independent country. This together, simultaneously or in sequence, with the UK exiting the EU would most likely trigger even more substantial economic difficulties for the UK than those which alarmed English politicians in 2014 when they were faced with Scottish independence alone.

Ironically, if the UK were to leave the EU, it would quite likely end up having to choose between less favourable trade terms with EU or less control over its borders: the non-EU countries of the European Free Trade Association, often touted as role models by Leave supporters, have all accepted Schengen membership as part of the terms of their trade deal. It therefore seems unlikely that the UK would be able to achieve the European trade deals that many Leave campaigners have proposed without accepting exactly the dilution of border control that terrifies many of their supporters.

In fact, the Prime Minister of Norway — an EFTA country admired by many Leave campaigners — recently warned Britons that they would live to regret a vote to leave. She expressed frustration at Norway’s inability to effectively influence many of the rules and agreements it accepts in order to maintain economic ties with the rest of Europe, and warned that the UK could face the same fate.