Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?

28 Apr 2016

Firstly and most importantly, let’s clear up the question of how you can vote, as there has been a lot of confusion surrounding this referendum. Anyone who is already registered and has voted in previous elections does not need to re-register. However, if you have moved homes you will need to re-register at your new property. If you have never voted in an election and need to register, then you can either register online (gov.uk/register-to-vote) or you will need to contact your local electoral registration office. To find your local registration office enter your postcode via this link.

It is a similar system to previous elections. If you have registered to vote you will be sent a polling card telling you where to vote on the 23rd of June. You can then proceed as normal to the polling station on this date and put an X in your box of choice.

So now that the logistics are understood, let’s talk about what the referendum is all about.

If the UK chooses to remain in the EU, what changes to the UK’s membership will we see?

David Cameron secured an agreement with EU leaders ahead of the referendum which changes the terms of Britain’s membership. The deal will take effect immediately after the vote, if Britain chooses to remain in the EU. Cameron says the deal gives Britain “special status” and believes it will help solve some of the issues British people say they don’t like about being part of the EU, for example not being able to run our own affairs and high levels of immigration. 

However, critics have said the deal will make little difference and doesn’t fulfil the promises he made when plans for a referendum were announced.

The key changes highlighted in the deal are:

  • Running our own affairs – For the first time, there will be a clear commitment that Britain is not part of a move towards “ever closer union” with other EU member states – one of the core principles of the EU. This will be incorporated in an EU treaty change. Mr Cameron also secured a “red card” system for national parliaments. It will be easier for governments to band together to block unwanted legislation. If 55% of national EU parliaments object to a piece of EU legislation it will be rethought. Critics say it is not clear if this would ever be used in practice.
  • Keeping the pound – Mr Cameron has said Britain will never join the euro. He secured assurances that the eurozone countries will not discriminate against Britain for having a different currency. Any British money spent on bailing out eurozone nations that get into trouble will also be reimbursed.
  • Child benefit – Migrant workers will still be able to send child benefit payments back to to their home country – Mr Cameron had wanted to end this practice – but the payments will be set at a level reflecting the cost of living in their home country rather than the full UK rate.
  • Migrant welfare payments – Mr Cameron says cutting the amount of benefits low paid workers from other EU nations can claim when they take a job in the UK will remove one of the reasons people come to Britain in such large numbers (critics say it will make little difference). He did not get the blanket ban he wanted. New arrivals will not be able to claim tax credits and other welfare payments straight away – but will gradually gain the right to more benefits the longer they stay, at a rate yet to be decided.
  • Protection for the City of London – Safeguards for Britain’s large financial services industry to prevent eurozone regulations being imposed on it.

Stay or Go. Who is on each side?

Stay

Now that David Cameron has negotiated some deals, he wants Britain to remain in the EU, as do 16 members of his cabinet. Although the Conservative Party have pledged neutral, the Labour Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems are all in favour of staying in. President Barack Obama also wants Britain to stay in the EU, along with other EU countries such as Germany and France. Recent opinion polls reveal the British public is fairly evenly split.

Why

They believe Britain reaps many benefits from it’s EU membership. For example, it it makes selling things to other EU countries easier and, they argue, the flow of immigrants, most of whom are young and keen to work, fuels economic growth and helps pay for public services. They also believe Britain’s status in the world would be damaged by leaving and that we are more secure as part of the 28 nation club, rather than going it alone.

Go

The UK Independence Party, the DUP, several Labour MPs and roughly half of Conservative MPs, including 5 cabinet ministers want Britain to leave the EU.

Why

They believe Britain is being held back by the EU, which they say imposes too many rules on business and charges billions of pounds a year in membership fees for little in return. They also want Britain to take back full control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming here to work. One of the main principles of EU membership is “free movement”, which means you don’t need to get a visa to go and live in another EU country. They also object to the idea of “ever closer union” and what they see as moves towards the creation of a “United States of Europe”.

So would Britain be better in or out?

It depends on what you believe is important. Leaving the EU would arguably have a bigger impact on Britain than the results of the general election, so it is an important decision we all have to make. Would leaving set the nation free or condemn us to economic ruin? The BBC helpfully summarise the arguments for and against.

What about Businesses?

In general, big businesses want Britain to stay in the EU because it makes the logistics of moving money, products and people around the world easier. BT chairman Sir Mike Rake, a recent CBI president, says there are “no credible alternatives” to staying in the EU. But others disagree, such as Lord Bamford, chairman of JCB, who says an EU exit would allow the UK to negotiate trade deals as our country “rather than being one of 28 nations”. 

Many small and medium sized businesses are more open to leaving because it could release them from certain EU regulations that are an inconvenience.

The British Chambers of Commerce says 55% of members back staying in a reformed EU.

These 2 links provide more information:

  • Business for Britain – wants big changes to the UK’s relations with the EU and says the UK should be prepared to vote to leave if the changes are not achieved.
  • Business for New Europe – is a coalition of business leaders who support the UK’s membership of the EU and “oppose withdrawal to the margins”.

Who is leading each side of the campaign?

Britain Stronger in Europe

Marks and Spencer Chairman Lord Rose leads the main cross-party group campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. It is supported by David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and other key Conservative Party figures, as well as the majority of Labour MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn and Alan Johnson, who is running the Labour In for Britain campaign, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Alliance party and the SDLP in Northern Ireland, and the Green Party. The biggest financial contributor to the group is supermarket mogul Lord Sainsbury. Hedge fund boss David Harding sits on the board of the organisation, while investment banks Citi and Goldman Sachs have said they would invest six-figure sums in the campaign. The SNP is running its own remain campaign in Scotland, as it does not want to share a platform with the Conservatives. More detail is available here.

Vote Leave Campaign

Is also a cross-party campaign. It grew out of ‘Business for Britain’ and is supported by senior Conservatives, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, as well as UKIP’s Suzanne Evans and Douglas Carswell, Labour’s Gisela Stuart and Graham Stringer, as well as Northern Island’s DUP. SDP founder Lord Owen and former Tory chancellor Lord Lawson are also involved in the movement. A variety of groups are affiliated with the campaign, such as Muslims for Britain, Farmers for Britain and Out and Proud, a gay anti-EU group, which all aim to build support in different communities. Several influential people have financially invested in the movement, for example, hedge fund billionaire Crispin Odey, Labour’s biggest private financial backer John Mills, city millionaire and Conservative donor Peter Cruddas, and Stuart Wheeler, a Conservative-turned-UKIP donor. More detail is available here. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is not part of the ‘Vote Leave Campaign’ as UKIP are running their own campaign.

The BBC published a question and answer article which covers some important points. Some of them are detailed below: 

If the UK left the EU would UK citizens need special permits to work in the EU?

Lots of people asked about this. A lot would depend on the kind of deal the UK agreed with the EU after exit. If it remained within the single market, it would almost certainly retain free movement rights allowing UK citizens to work in the EU and vice versa. If the government opted to impose work permit restrictions, as UKIP wants, then other countries could reciprocate, meaning Britons would have to apply for visas to work.

What about EU nationals who want to work in the UK?

As explained in the answer above, it would depend on whether the UK government decided to introduce a work permit system of the kind that currently applies to non-EU citizens, limiting entry to skilled workers in professions where there are shortages.

Would leaving the EU mean we wouldn’t have to abide by the European Court of Human Rights?

Duncan, from Chippenham, wanted to know if the UK could deport terror suspects to their own countries to face charges without being overruled by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.

The ECHR is not a European Union institution. It was set up by the Council of Europe, which has 47 members including Russia and Ukraine. So quitting the EU would not exempt the UK from its decisions.

The UK government is, however, committed to repealing the Human Rights Act which requires UK courts to treat the ECHR as setting legal precedents for the UK, in favour of a British Bill of Rights. As part of that, David Cameron is expected to announce measures that will boost the powers of courts in England and Wales to over-rule judgements handed down by the ECHR.

Has any member state ever left the EU, or would the UK be the first?

Pauline, from Shipston on Stour, asked this one. No nation state has ever left the EU. But Greenland, one of Denmark’s overseas territories, held a referendum in 1982, after gaining a greater degree of self government, and voted by 52% to 48% to leave, which it duly did after a period of negotiation. The BBC’s Carolyn Quinn visited Greenland at the end of last year to find out how they did it.

How much does the UK contribute to the EU and how much do we get in return?

In answer to this query from Nancy from Hornchurch – the UK is one of 10 member states who pay more into the EU budget than they get out, only France and Germany contribute more. In 2014/15, Poland was the largest beneficiary, followed by Hungary and Greece.

The UK also gets an annual rebate that was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and money back, in the form of regional development grants and payments to farmers, which added up to £4.6bn in 2014/15. According to the latest Treasury figures, the UK’s net contribution for 2014/15 was £8.8bn – nearly double what it was in 2009/10.

To put that in context, it is about £24m a day or about 1.4% of total public annual spending – slightly less than the energy and climate change department’s annual budget. Some leave campaigners say the UK sends £55m a day to the EU but that is based on gross figures, which is a fair approximation of the UK’s “membership fee” but does not take rebates and money back into account.

The National Audit Office, using a different formula which takes into account EU money paid directly to private sector companies and universities to fund research, and measured over the EU’s financial year, shows the UK’s net contribution for 2014 was £5.7bn.

If I retire to Spain or another EU country will my healthcare costs still be covered?

David, from East Sussex, is worried about what would happen to his retirement plans if Britain votes to leave the EU. This is one of those issues where it is not possible to say definitively what would happen. At the moment, the large British expat community in Spain gets free access to Spanish GPs and their hospital treatment is paid for by the NHS. After they become permanent residents Spain pays for their hospital treatment. Similar arrangements are in place with other EU countries.

If Britain leaves the EU but remains in the single market, or the European Economic Area as it is known, it might be able to continue with this arrangement, according to a House of Commons library research note. If Britain has to negotiate trade deals with individual member states, it may opt to continue paying for expats’ healthcare through the NHS or decide that they would have to cover their own costs if they continue to live abroad, if the country where they live declines to do so.

Will the opinion polls get it wrong again?

The short answer is that we’ll find out on 24 June! John Wilkinson wrote to ask whether we are in for a repeat of the general election when the opinion polls underestimated support for one side, the Conservatives, and overstated support for the other, Labour. As Mr Wilkinson points out, research suggests younger people are more likely to vote to remain in the EU, while older voters tend to favour out. But as a general rule, older people are more likely to vote in elections than younger people. The “don’t knows” are also running at between 17% and 20%. Prof John Curtice, who supervised the general election exit poll, has also noticed a difference between polls conducted online, which suggest the race is close, and ones conducted over the telephone, which put the Remain campaign ahead.

Opinion polling is not an exact science – for more information on the latest referendum polls and analysis by Prof Curtice, visit the National Centre for Social Research’s What UK thinks site.

Who counts as a British citizen?

Jude wanted to know if his Peruvian girlfriend, who is a British citizen but has been living in Peru for five years, can take part in the referendum. The answer is yes, if she has appeared on the UK electoral register in the past 15 years.

How long will it take for Britain to leave the EU?

This was a question asked by many people. The minimum period after a vote to leave would be two years. During that time Britain would continue to abide by EU treaties and laws, but not take part in any decision-making, as it negotiated a withdrawal agreement and the terms of its relationship with the now 27 nation bloc. In practice it may take longer than two years, depending on how the negotiations go.

Could MPs block an EU exit if Britain votes for it?

Michael, from East Sussex asks an intriguing question – could the necessary legislation pass the Commons if all SNP and Lib Dems, nearly all Labour and many Conservative MPs were in favour of staying?

The answer is that technically MPs could block an EU exit – but it would be seen as political suicide to go against the will of the people as expressed in a referendum. The referendum result is not legally binding – Parliament still has to pass the laws that will get Britain out of the 28 nation bloc, starting with the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act.

The withdrawal agreement would also have to be ratified by Parliament – the House of Lords and/or the Commons could vote against ratification, according to a House of Commons library report.

It adds: “If the Commons resolves against ratification, the treaty can still be ratified if the Government lays a statement explaining why the treaty should nonetheless be ratified and the House of Commons does not resolve against ratification a second time within 21 days (this process can be repeated ad infinitum).”

In practice, Conservative MPs who voted to remain in the EU would be whipped to vote with the government. Any who defied the whip would have to face the wrath of voters at the next general election.

One scenario that could see the referendum result overturned, is if MPs forced a general election and a party campaigned on a promise to keep Britain in the EU, got elected and then claimed that the election mandate topped the referendum one. Two thirds of MPs would have to vote for a general election to be held before the next scheduled one in 2020.

What is the single market?

Virginia, from Hayling Island, asked several questions around the concept of the single market. You could probably write a book on this one. But we’ll try to keep it brief. The single market is seen by its advocates as the EU’s biggest achievement and one of the main reasons it was set up in the first place. Britain was a member of a free trade area in Europe before it joined what was then known as the common market. In a free trade area countries can trade with each other without paying tariffs – but it is not a single market because the member states do not have to merge their economies together.

The European Union single market, which was completed in 1992, allows the free movement of goods, services, money and people within the European Union, as if it was a single country. It is possible to set up a business or take a job anywhere within it. The idea was to boost trade, create jobs and lower prices. But it requires common law-making to ensure products are made to the same technical standards and imposes other rules to ensure a “level playing field”. Critics say it generates too many petty regulations and robs members of control over their own affairs. Mass migration from poorer to richer countries has also raised questions about the free movement rule. Read more: A free trade area v EU single market.

What will happen to protected species if Britain leaves the EU?

Dee, from Launceston, wanted to know what would happen to EU laws covering protected species such as bats if Britain left. The answer is that they would remain in place, initially at least. After a leave vote, the government would probably review all EU-derived laws in the two years leading up to the official exit date to see which ones to keep or scrap.

The status of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, which are designated by the EU, would be reviewed to see what alternative protections could be applied. The same process would apply to European Protected Species legislation, which relate to bats and their habitats.

The government would want to avoid a legislative vacuum caused by the repeal of EU laws before new UK laws are in place – it would also continue to abide by other international agreements covering environmental protection.

How much money will the UK save through changes to migrant child benefits and welfare payments?

Martin, from Poole, in Dorset, wanted to know what taxpayers are likely to get back from the benefit curbs negotiated by David Cameron in Brussels. We don’t exactly know because the details have not been worked out.

HM Revenue and Customs have suggested about 20,000 EU nationals receive child benefit payments in respect of 34,000 children in their country of origin at an estimated cost of about £30m.

But the total saving is likely to be significantly less than that because Mr Cameron did not get the blanket ban he wanted. Instead, payments will be linked to the cost of living in the countries where the children live.

David Cameron has said that as many as 40% of EU migrant families who come to Britain could lose an average of £6,000 a year of in-work benefits when his “emergency brake” is applied. The DWP estimates between 128,700 and 155,100 people would be affected.

But the cuts will be phased in. New arrivals will not get tax credits and other in-work benefits straight away but will gradually gain access to them over a four year period at a rate yet to be decided.

Do Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK on a limited work visa get to vote?

Brendan, from London, wonders whether Commonwealth citizens need to have been granted indefinite leave to remain to get a vote. The Electoral Commission guidelines say: “Any type of leave to enter or remain is acceptable, whether indefinite, time limited or conditional.” That means all citizens of India, Australia, Pakistan, Canada and 48 other Commonwealth nations who are living in the UK can take part (provided they are old enough and are on the electoral register). As can citizens of British overseas territories, such as the Falkland Islands, Bermuda or Gibraltar, if they are currently residing in the UK. Here is a full list of Commonwealth countries.

Can EU citizens living in the UK vote in the referendum?

No. The rules are the same as at last year’s general election, when EU citizens were also barred from taking part.

What impact would leaving the EU have on house prices?

John, in London, is concerned about what will happen to house prices if Britain leaves the EU and “millions of EU citizens need to leave” creating a flood of available housing. This is one of those questions where there is no clear-cut factual answer. But we can say that none of the main players are suggesting that citizens of other EU countries will be “sent packing” (to use John’s phrase) after a Leave vote. There are a host of other variables that have an impact on property prices, including things like interest rates and the general state of the economy. But expect this to be one of those issues fought over by both sides during the campaign.

What is the ‘red tape’ that the opponents of the EU go on about?

Ged, from Liverpool, suspects “red tape” is a euphemism for employment rights and environmental protection. According to the Open Europe think tank, four of the top five most costly EU regulations are either employment or environment-related. The UK renewable energy strategy, which the think-tank says costs £4.7bn a year, tops the list. The working time directive (£4.2bn a year) – which limits the working week to 48 hours – and the temporary agency workers directive (£2.1bn a year), giving temporary staff many of the same rights as permanent ones – are also on the list.

There is nothing to stop a future UK government reproducing these regulations in British law, if the country left the EU. And the costs of so-called “red tape” would not necessarily disappear overnight in the event of an exit – if Britain opted to follow the “Norway model” and remained in the European Economic Area most of the EU-derived laws would remain in place.

Would Britain be party to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership if it left?

Ste, in Bolton, asked about this. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – or TTIP – currently under negotiation between the EU and United States will create the biggest free trade area the world has ever seen. Cheerleaders for TTIP, including David Cameron, believe it could make American imports cheaper and boost British exports to the US to the tune of £10bn a year. But many on the left, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, fear it will shift more power to multinational corporations, undermine public services, wreck food standards and threaten basic rights. Quitting the EU would mean the UK would not be part of TTIP. It would have negotiate its own trade deal with the US.

We acknowledge BBC News and Brian Wheeler & Alex Hunt for supplying the information we have shared.