By Arvin Khanchandani
Just two months ago, in September, 55% of the public wanted Britain to stay in the European Union, according to a poll conducted by ORB for the Independent. However, last week, the poll figures indicated that the tides are turning: currently, 52% of Brits are in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. This is the first time the ORB’s survey has shown a majority for ‘Brexit’.
The momentum is clearly with the two ‘out’ campaigns – Leave.EU and Vote Leave – which have started merger negotiations to establish a single, robust campaign championing ‘Brexit’. In contrast, the dominant ‘in’ campaign – Britain Stronger in Europe – has been comparatively underfunded and criticised for focusing on the negative consequences of a potential ‘Brexit’, rather than highlighting the benefits the UK enjoys from its EU membership.
So, with ‘Brexit’ increasingly becoming a tangible reality, what will determine the outcome of the referendum?
The main challenge for the ‘out’ campaigns is to convince the public that, in the event of ‘Brexit’, the UK will still have the access to the EU single market, while enjoying greater control over socio-political issues important to Brits, such as immigration and border control. However, these two goals are contradictory in nature as the single market encompasses all ‘four freedoms’ of goods, people, services and capital. In this context, it will be crucial for the ‘out’ campaign to present a coherent message about what relationship they envisage Britain having with the EU if it decides to leave.
A possible option would be to follow European Economic Area (EEA) members – Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – who remain outside the EU but participate in the EU internal market. This, however, comes at a price as they are required to adopt all EU legislation without having a say in shaping it.
British Eurosceptics largely seem to prefer the Swiss ‘à la carte’ model which is based on a series of bilateral agreements with the EU. This means that Switzerland has access to only selected parts of the single market and it is only in those areas that it must adopt the pertinent EU acquis. However, the EU is growing increasingly frustrated with this model. According to the Council report, it ‘is creating legal uncertainty and has become unwieldy to manage and has clearly reached its limits’. Against this backdrop, the EU might be unwilling to allow another country to follow Switzerland’s suit.
However, while Switzerland is able to negotiate free trade accords with other countries independently of the EU, it still has to subscribe to the EU freedom of movement. This has left Switzerland facing what many see as similar problems to the UK; due to high levels of immigration and limited space, many areas are lacking critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools and housing. The Swiss actually voted in favour of introducing quotas for all migrants in Switzerland in a referendum in February last year. However, such quotas would violate the terms of the Swiss free movement of people treaty with the EU. It is questionable whether Switzerland will be able to execute the will of its people and whether Britain would have more bargaining power if it found itself in a similar position.
The demographic war
Battle lines will also be drawn between the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns when it comes to demographics. The latest ORB survey indicates that only 31% of 18-24 year-olds favour ‘Brexit’, yet the figure increases twofold in the 65+ age group, soaring to 62%. Therefore, if the ‘in’ campaign manages to coax the youth to the ballots, the result of the referendum should favour the ‘inners’. The importance of this to the ‘in’ campaign can be seen by how hard the Lords are fighting to extend the franchise to 16 year olds for the referendum.
External developments may also sway swing voters one way or the other in the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Currently, the EU is facing pressures on many fronts: the poor handling of the Greek crisis, the sluggish growth rate of its economy, its impotence in the face of the refugee crisis and its inability to contain the immediate terrorist threat, to name but a few. Should the EU find effective solutions to these multi-faceted challenges, the European integration project will regain its credibility and once again appear attractive in the eyes of Britons.
On the other hand, if it fails to deal with these problems, or if they are further exacerbated (for instance, by Greece leaving the Eurozone or by more terrorist attacks in European cities), the EU’s appeal will quickly diminish to the point that ‘Brexit’ becomes inevitable.
In light of the EU’s lacklustre performance in many areas crucial to the well-being of its peoples, ‘Brexit’ has ceased to be a mere political fantasy. While there are many factors to consider when predicting whether Britain will stay in or opt out of the EU, it seems most likely that the ‘status quo bias’ will ultimately decide Britain’s future. This does not mean that all is lost for the ‘Out’ Campaign – if they can consistently overshadow the ‘in’ campaign, or if the EU’s credibility is further undermined by the timing of the referendum, the public may be less opposed to change.