Britain and the EU: Report 1

My piece for Eurooppatiedotus, European Information run by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, was published recently. You can find the published piece here. The English language version is below.

 

On Thursday 23 June Britain will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain in the European Union (EU). The question people will be asked is ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’. The options for voters will be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ and ‘Leave the European Union’. It is only the third national referendum in British history, and only the second on membership of the EU. And the result is far from certain.

 

Who can vote?

Who is eligible to vote in the referendum has been a subject of much debate in Britain. It is complicated by British history and the significance the government still gives to the successor states of the former British Empire, the Commonwealth.

The simple answer is that all British and Commonwealth citizens aged over 18 and living in the United Kingdom can vote. British troops stationed abroad can also cast a ballot, as can those citizens who no longer live in the country but have been on the list of voters – the electoral register – in the last 15 years. Unlike in general elections, Commonwealth citizens living in Gibraltar are also eligible.

Controversially, EU citizens who live in Britain are not allowed to cast a vote, despite many paying taxes and contributing much to Britain’s communities and way of life. There are, however exceptions: people from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus will each be allowed to vote because of the historical links between Britain and these countries.

 

Who can’t vote?

Many people, including the leadership of the Labour party, had hoped to extend the vote to include 16 and 17 year olds. They used the decision by the Scottish Government to offer the vote to this age group in the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 to justify their argument. However, government ministers blocked the plan, saying that 16 year olds were too young to make a decision of such national importance.

 

What will people be voting for?

People will be asked to decide whether to remain in the EU based on the reforms that Prime Minister David Cameron secured at a meeting of the European Council in February. If people vote to remain in the EU, these changes will become law immediately. They include:

Sovereignty: For the first time, and unlike every other EU member, Britain will not have to take part in ‘ever closer union’ with other EU states.

Eurozone: Britain will definitely not join the euro, and will not be penalised for doing so. Britain will also no longer have to bail out eurozone countries that come into economic difficulty.

Welfare: The most controversial change. Child benefit paid to EU workers will be paid at the rate of their home country. This will mean citizens from Poland and Romania will get paid less. People who marry EU citizens will also not be given an automatic right to stay in the EU. This affects every EU country, not just Britain.

Role of national parliaments: The Prime Minister won the right for all EU national parliaments to block unwanted legislation. 55% of national parliaments must decided that the legislation is unwanted before the Commission and European Parliament have to reconsider it. This also affects the whole of the EU, not just the UK.

Competitiveness: The Commission and European Parliament will be compelled to make better regulation, so that businesses and industry throughout the EU can remain competitive – something likely to increase growth throughout the Union. The City of London will also have specific safeguards to prevent it having to comply with eurozone regulations such as a tax on transactions.

 

Who will lead the campaigns?

In the UK, political campaigning is tightly controlled and regulated. The Electoral Commission – an impartial, independent body – sets the rules about who will lead each campaign and how much they can each spend. It is the Electoral Commission that set the referendum question, and it is the Electoral Commission that ensures fairness and openness in the referendum campaign.

The Electoral Commission will select an official ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ campaign group, and this decision will be announced on 14 April.

The two official campaigns will each be given £600,000 (€768,000) of public money to spend on administration, TV and internet ads, and public communication. They will also be able to accept private donations from other individuals eligible to vote in the referendum, or a UK-based company, charity, trade union or bank. Other groups, such as UK universities and trusts, can also donate. To ensure transparency, the source of donations over £10,000 (€12,800) has to be made publicly available. There is an overall spending cap of £7 million (€8.9 million), regardless of how much the campaigns receive in private donations.

Other, unofficial groups can also spend money on the campaign if they wish. However, this is also tightly controlled. If these unofficial groups register with the Electoral Commission, they will be able to spend no more than £600,000. Those groups that do no register with the Electoral Commission can also campaign if they choose to, but their finances are even more tightly controlled: they can spend just £10,000.

 

What about the political parties?

All national and regional parties are officially in favour of remaining in the EU, even if many of their own members are not. How much each party spends of its own money is again very tightly limited, and is based on their share of the national vote in the 2015 general election. This means that the Conservatives have the most to spend – £7 million – while smaller parties such as the SNP, Liberal Democrats, the Green party, and UKIP have between £4-5 million (€5.1-6.4 million).

 

What groups are there?

At the moment various groups exist. On the ‘remain’ side is Britain Stronger in Europe, a cross-party group that consists of businesses, individuals such as billionaire Richard Branson, television personalities, trade unions and politicians. David Cameron himself will not join this group but will campaign for Britain to remain as the prime minister.

The ‘leave’ side is more fractured. Vote Leave is very well funded and counts prominent politicians such as London Mayor Boris Johnson among its members. Grassroots Out is another group, comprising UKIP leader Nigel Farage and other politicians from Labour and the Conservatives. A third group, Leave.EU, has since merged with Grassroots Out. A final group, Business for Britain, has close connections with Vote Leave.

Some parties also have their own campaign groups. The Labour in for Britain group is a specifically Labour-group run by the former interior minister, Alan Johnson. However, some left wing Labour MPs instead support Another Europe is Possible, which emphasises the social benefits of remaining in the EU. Anti-EU groups include Conservatives for Britain and Labour Leave. None of these groups are likely to have access to party funding, but they do indicate how divided the Conservatives and Labour – by far the two largest parties in Britain – both are.

 

The debate so far

Many of those opposed to the EU are concerned about sovereignty and the freedom of the British Parliament to make policy unhindered by Brussels. They also cite concerns about freedom of movement, immigration and control of Britain’s borders as reasons why Britain should leave. Some prefer free trade organisations, such as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), to the EU. Countries like Norway and Switzerland are often held up as example of what Britain could be: close to the EU, but not a member of it.

Those who wish to stay say that Britain is better off in a large market of 500 million people. They point to the fact that half of Britain’s trade is with the EU, which they say would be hindered should Britain decide to leave. They also say that Britain is safer in the EU. For instance, they point to how the EU is able to stand up to Russia and negotiate with Iran about nuclear disarmament. Others say that Britain’s influence in the world – and in particular its standing in Washington – would diminish should it decide to leave.

At the moment, the polls are very close. People trust David Cameron more than most other politicians; they are therefore likely to accept his arguments. The intervention of President Obama in the campaign, saying that the United States wants Britain to stay, may also prove crucial. But lots can and will happen between now and 23 June. The next update in this series, which will cover the media portrayal and the decision by the Electoral Commission to designate official campaign groups, will include that latest developments. Be sure to check back.

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