Britain’s EU Referendum: Five Things You Should Know

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that a UK referendum on EU membership will take place on 23 June 2016. Here our experts tell you what you need to know.

Cameron will be campaigning on a new deal between Britain and the EU

The deal, struck on 19 February, after European leaders reached unanimous agreement, covers four areas: competitiveness, sovereignty, economic governance, and migrant benefits. Among other things, it clarifies that the UK has no obligation to be part of an ‘ever closer union’, strengthens the protections for countries which don’t use the Euro, means new EU migrants to the UK won’t gain full access to the UK’s in-work benefits until they have worked for four years and reduces child benefit for workers whose children are abroad.

The question will be to remain or to leave

How the question is posed in a referendum can be controversial. The original proposal, “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”, with “Yes” and “No” as responses, was judged by the Electoral Commission to favour the status quo. Instead, the referendum will ask: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ and the responses will be “Remain” and “Leave”.

The Conservative party is divided

In an echo of the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community, the Prime Minister is allowing ministers in the government to campaign on different sides of the referendum. If Cameron had not done so, he would have faced the possibility of a number of senior ministers resigning from the Cabinet, and deepened the split at the top of government. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s decisions to join the leave campaign are a significant boost for the Brexit cause. Even if the UK votes to Remain, it may be difficult for Cameron to resolve the long term differences at the top of the party, particularly after a potentially heated and aggressive campaign. If he loses, he may well resign as Prime Minister.

The public are split and the polls have been erratic

For much of 2015, the ‘Remain’ camp held a considerable lead in the polls but the race appears to have tightened. At present, the average of polls suggests the campaign is a dead heat, with around a fifth of the public saying they are undecided. However, this average masks significant variation, in particular between online polls, some of which have shown Leave ahead, and phone-based polls, which have found large leads for Remain, which is still unexplained. As Chatham House’s Matthew Goodwin points out, given the inaccuracies of polls in the run up to the 2015 UK general election, we should treat all these numbers with caution.

Age and class matter to views of the EU

As a recent Chatham House report explained, those who would vote to leave the EU tend to be over 55, have fewer academic qualifications and work in lower-income jobs while the typical Remain voter tends to be younger, more highly educated and more financial secure. The main driving forces behind Eurosceptic attitudes are dissatisfaction with EU democracy and worries about the effects of immigration.

For more of Chatham House’s work on the EU referendum, visit: https://www.chathamhouse.org/research/regions/europe/UK/eu-referendum

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