Don’t Worry. Brexit Isn’t Likely to Pass.

News Abroad
tags: Brexit

Luke Reader received a Ph.D. in History from University of California, Irvine.  He is currently researching internationalism and the Labour Party.  He teaches in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University and at John Carroll University.

The identity of the most popular global figure in Britain might surprise you.  It’s not Queen Elizabeth II.  A September 2015 study found that she had the support of 68% of people.  But a Pew Research Center poll from the same month found that President Obama enjoyed an approval rate of 76%.  This might explain the intervention by the US leader in the British referendum on EU membership. 

President Obama was forthright.  In a Daily Telegraph op-ed, he warned readers of the Eurosceptic newspaper that Brexit, withdrawal from the EU, would jeopardize the “special relationship” between the UK and the USA.  At a joint press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, he explained that leaving the EU would put Britain at the back of the queue in trade negotiations between the USA and Europe. 

Cameron has staked his office on voters opting to remain in EU.  To this end, he has resurrected the strategy that secured victory in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum: raising concerns about the fiscal viability and economic isolation of an independent Scotland. 

President Obama’s contribution to the referendum debate helps Cameron.  As the campaign enters its final two months, polls are tight.  Only 54% of voters favor remaining in the EU.

Over the past week, the arguments in favor of Brexit have begun to fall apart.  Withdrawal from the EU will make Britain measurably poorer.  A Treasury report showed that GDP will fall by 6.2%, leaving families £4,300 a year worse off.  The Bank of England warned that Brexit could cause great uncertainty in the British and global economies, damaging monetary policy, exports, and consumer demand.  President Obama’s press conference brought into question the belief that Britain, shorn of the EU, will quickly secure favorable trade agreements with its economic partners.  Nor will the Empire strike back.  As Jonathan Freedland explained in the Guardian, President Obama shattered the reverie of some Brexiteers that, freed of the maws of the EU, Britain will enjoy the warm glow of a rejuvenated “Anglosphere.”

All of this will seem familiar to Scottish Nationalists.

An extensive report in the Guardian showed how the campaign to leave the UK unraveled in the summer of 2014.  The Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats agreed that an independent Scotland should not use sterling, but should either issue its own currency or join the Euro.  This decision undid a key element of the independence campaign, the promise that an independent Scotland would share the currency of the rest of the UK.  Although this approach did not build support for pro-union forces, it did provide cover for business leaders to express concern about independence.  These grew acute in the days before the referendum, when the value of sterling began falling and the share price of companies based in Scotland or exposed to extensive risk there collapsed.

Economic reality intruded upon the prospect of independence.  And there was much to worry about beyond the currency Scotland would use.  Voters were concerned about the post-independence economic plans of the Scottish National Party government given high levels of public debt, over-reliance on revenue from dwindling supplies of North Sea oil, and the aging population of Scotland relative to the rest of the UK,.  Additionally, the process by which an independent Scotland would join the EU was not clarified, leading to fears of economic isolation. 

Independence meant uncertainty.  Exploiting these worries made for a negative campaign – Project Fear in the eyes of nationalists.  But along with a promise of more devolved powers, they ensured that Britain remained together.

In many respects, the Scottish campaign was the harder to win.  Support for independence grew throughout 2014.  Voters have never expressed a desire to leave the EU.  

According to British Social Attitudes Surveys (BSAS), demand for withdrawal reached a high of 42% in 1983 and a low of 17% eight years later.  Support for membership was at a low of 48% in 1984 and a high of 77% in 1991.  The most recent BSAS, conducted between July 2015 and January 2016, found that 60% of voters preferred to stay in the EU and 30% favored Brexit.  Sixty-five percent of voters wanted to limit the powers of the EU to regulate companies and businesses and called for restrictions on the ability of immigrants and refugees to claim benefits.  In February, Cameron secured key reforms in these areas.  These included an opt-out on further integration, reductions on business regulation, and limitations on benefit payments. 

Those surveyed in the most recent BSAS also reflect the concerns expressed by President Obama.  Pluralities of voters believe that withdrawal will damage Britain economically and reduce the global status of the country.  The events of last week will only have made these concerns more acute.

So far, Cameron has struggled to secure victory in the EU referendum.  But with the help of President Obama, he has shifted debate to friendlier terrain.  We’ll see if this tactic pays off on June 23rd. 

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