The UK and Europe

The UK-EU neck-and-neck debate

Peter Kellner / Jan 2016


The United Kingdom enters 2016 with the two sides in the European Union referendum debate neck-and-neck. Every YouGov survey in the pasts four months has found that neither the “in” or “out” campaigns has established a clear lead. With the referendum likely in the year ahead, and possibly as early as June, what will break the deadlock.

Past experience of referendums in the UK and other countries suggests that rthe advantage lies with the status quo – in this case, the advocates of continued EU membership. In Britain’s 1975 referendum on the then Common Market, which Britain had joined two years earlier, a clear 57-43% majority favoured exit only eight months earlier. By referendum day, public opinion had turned round, and voters chose by 67-33% to stay “in Europe”.

Similar stories can be told of other referendums since then, where late swings have generally favoured the status quo – for example in two Scottish referendums, on Spain remaining in NATO, France and the Netherlands rejecting the EU constitution, Quebec twice deciding to stay part of Canada and Australia voting to keep Britain’s Queen as head of state.

The common thread to all these votes is risk aversion. Until decision day draws near, many people like the general idea of change, without thinking much about the nature of the alternative. The run-in to voting day prompts people to think not just about the current state of affairs (which in today’s case is of a vague, widespread rumbling of dissatisfaction with Brussels) but of what life would be like if we set out in a very different direction. For many people, their initial “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” mood for change is overtaken by a more cautious sentiment: “keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”.

All else being equal, I would expect the same thing to happen in Britain’s coming referendum on the EU. I reckon that around one in three British voters have yet to decide finally which side to support. They are less than enthusiastic about today’s EU and worried about immigration – but in the end will judge which is the safer option: to stay in the EU, despite its faults, or for the UK to strike out on its own.

This puts the onus on the “out” camp not just to say that Britain COULD be more prosperous outside the EU, but that it WILL be more prosperous – that is, that there are no serious risks in opting for Brexit. In contrast, the “in” camp merely has to sow seeds of doubt in voters’ minds – that we MIGHT find it harder to export to Europe; and/or that big multinational companies MIGHT locate new jobs and investment on the continent rather than the UK, and/or that, in return for a new free trade deal with the EU, Britain MIGHT have to pay an annual fee, and abide by all the EU’s Single Market rules (as Norway and Switzerland now do). As it is easier to generate doubts that to promise certainty, the advantage lies with the “in” camp.

But, and it’s a huge “but” – in fact a series of “buts” – things could happen to upset this “all else being equal” scenario. Here are four “known unknowns”: things that might happen to push the middle third of British voters towards the “out” camp.

  • A fresh refugee crisis might erupt in the final weeks of campaigning – a fresh influx of arrivals from Syria, say, or a significant number of people in camps near Calais getting into Britain via the Channel Tunnel.
  • A new Eurozone crisis – maybe Greece again, or Spain, or Portugal, or Italy – provoking voters to think that the EU’s economy is in a mess and we are better off increasing our distance from it.
  • Another Paris-style terrorist attack that voters think, rightly or wrongly, puts EU countries at greater risk than countries outside the EU
  • Boris Johnson, who steps down as the Mayor of London next May, joining the “out” camp. He is by far the most charismatic Conservative politician, and could go some way to neutralise David Cameron’s near-certain advocacy of an “in” vote. (By the same token, if Johnson recommends staying in the EU, this would be a big boost to the “in” camp.)

Then, of course, there are the “unknown unknowns” that might erupt. The general point is this. The “in” camp is likely to win as long as most voters think Brexit is riskier than continued membership of the EU. But if the perceived risks change, and Brexit looks to be the safer choice, then I would not bet any money on the UK remaining a member of the European Union.

One final point. Readers may have noticed that I have not said anything here about the current renegotiations. This is because I doubt they will make much difference. Mr Cameron will reach some kind of deal (as Harold Wilson, Britain’s then prime Minister did in 1975). It will involve compromise on both sides (as in 1975). Whatever, the details, the “in” camp will hail it as a great success, while the “out” camp will brand it as a terrible failure (as in 1975). Voters will ignore the details and make up their minds on a broader assessment of the risks of getting this big decision wrong (as in 1975).

But whether the final outcome will also match what happened 40 years ago remains to be seen.

Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner

January 2016

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