HUFFINGTON POST
06/20/2016 06:39 pm ET

Brexit Breakdown: Your Guide To Britain's EU Referendum

With a potential British departure from the EU just days away, The WorldPost takes a look at the key facts in the debate.
Brits will decide the fate of their nation's membership in the European Union on Thursday.
Neil Hall/Reuters
Brits will decide the fate of their nation's membership in the European Union on Thursday.

This is an updated version of an earlier Brexit Breakdown.

Brits will head to the polls on Thursday in a national referendum to weigh in on a question that will drastically impact Europe's future: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave?

With a potential British departure from the EU just days away, The WorldPost takes a look at the terms, the stakeholders and the key facts in the debate leading up to the vote.

The Terms

The term “Brexit refers to Britain’s possible exit from the EU — the political and economic partnership of 28 European countries.

The U.K., comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will hold a referendum, or nationwide vote, on the proposal.  

The Background

The U.K.’s resistance to EU policies isn’t new: It was hesitant to join the bloc in the first place, and Britain’s critics in the Union have referred to it as the "awkward" member state — a phrase author Stephen George coined in his 1998 book, An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community.

On Jan. 1, 1973, the U.K. finally joined the European Economic Community, the economic organization created in 1957 that was later incorporated into the EU. Two years after joining, nearly 70 percent of Brits voted in a referendum to continue membership.

In 1999, 11 of the EU’s members joined the eurozone, a monetary union that adopted the newly created euro as its sole currency. As membership grew to include 19 states, the U.K. kept its own currency, the pound sterling, instead.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron assumed office in 2010, amid criticism over his nation’s membership in the EU. Anti-EU sentiment increased after the European debt crisis, and Cameron vowed in January 2013 that if his Conservative Party was re-elected with a majority government, he would renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership with the EU. He pledged to schedule a referendum on a possible Brexit by 2017. British Parliament then legislated the referendum in the wake of the Conservatives’ victory in the nation’s 2015 election.  

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, spearheaded negotiations
Geert Vanden Wijngaer/ASSOCIATED PRESS
European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, spearheaded negotiations for the U.K.'s new proposed terms of EU membership.

After months of negotiations between U.K. and EU officials spearheaded by Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk, all 28 EU member states unanimously reached an agreement on Britain’s new proposed terms of membership at a two-day summit in February.

Cameron, who desperately wants to remain in the EU, claims he landed a strong deal that grants the U.K. more political autonomy, but critics say it isn’t enough.

Notable parts of the agreement include: “more integrated governance” of the eurozone, allowing the U.K. to keep the pound sterling as its currency; permitting the “non-participation” of member states in certain EU policies and objectives; and allowing Britain to limit the amount of benefits that immigrants to the U.K. are eligible to receive.

Though it doesn't fully deliver on the prime minister’s initial proposals, the deal addresses all of Cameron's concerns “without compromising EU fundamental values,” according to a statement posted on the European Council’s website. It will come into effect if the U.K. opts to continue its membership. Should the U.K. decide to leave, pending the results of the referendum, the deal will be canceled.

If the U.K. does leave the EU, it will become the first member state ever to exit.

Euroskeptics have framed the debate over EU membership in terms of sovereignty, border control and immigration.
Michael Tubi/Getty Images
Euroskeptics have framed the debate over EU membership in terms of sovereignty, border control and immigration.

The Brits’ Response

Britain’s division on EU membership has remained relatively balanced for months, with the two sides currently neck-and-neck in the advance polls.

Prominent Euroskeptics like former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage -- the outspoken leader of the anti-EU, hardline conservative U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP -- have framed the debate in terms of sovereignty, border control and, especially, immigration.

Britain has become an “unrecognizable” country where “you don’t hear English anymore,” according to Farage, who would like to slash the U.K.’s influx of immigrants down to 30,000 annually. The “Vote Leave campaign, backed in part by Johnson and other Euroskeptic leaders, published a dossier of 50 criminals with EU citizenship who legally crossed into Britain from other member states.

In Britain, where free movement legislation allows EU nationals to work and live in other member states without a work permit, net immigration has reached 333,000 per year, with 184,000 newcomers arriving from within the Union.

But widespread anti-immigration sentiment has grown since more than 1 million migrants and refugees entered Europe last summer, and it's also impacting support for a Brexit. Many anti-immigration advocates believe separating from the EU would leave the U.K. free to slow the flow of immigration, with some arguing for Australian-style immigration based on a more restrictive, points-based system.

The debate over immigration during the lead-up to the referendum is becoming contentious as the “Remain” camp accuses anti-EU politicians of scaremongering. Last week, both sides disapproved of a poster unveiled by UKIP’s Farage that showed lines of refugees and migrants awaiting entry to Europe, implying they could reach Britain due to a lack of border control.

Concern over extremist, anti-immigrant sentiment heightened last Thursday, when a man shouting “Britain First” and other nationalist slogans killed pro-immigration, Labour Party Member of Parliament Jo Cox. After Cox's murder, both sides condemned the attack and suspended their campaigns until this week.

In terms of economic outcomes, many pro-Brexit Brits also believe an independent Britain could conduct its own trade negotiations more effectively by liberating itself from EU bureaucracy. A number of prominent economists, however, have spoken out against a Brexit, saying it would trigger massive economic uncertainty and weaken Britain’s position in global trade markets.

"Remain" proponents like British Prime Minister David Cameron fear that a departure from the EU would be irreversib
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
"Remain" proponents like British Prime Minister David Cameron fear that a departure from the EU would be irreversible and significantly affect the economy.

Many in the pro-EU camp fear that renouncing membership would yield dire economic and political consequences. Access to the European single market could be restricted, for example.

Economic experts have warned that the long- and short-term effects of a Brexit would likely be negative, due to reduced trade and foreign investment, The Economist notes.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, one of the leading voices in the “Remain” movement, has warned that a departure from the Union could also hurt Britain’s national health services.

"The EU is not perfect, but our membership brings significant benefits, such as the protection of employment rights; the right to paid maternity, the right to paid holidays and not working more than 48 hours a week, and the right to not be discriminated against,” Sturgeon said, adding that pro-Brexit politicians have demonized immigrants, who bring many benefits to British society.

As the referendum creeps closer, Cameron has repeatedly stressed that a Brexit would be an irreversible move.

“We will have less growth, we will have less jobs, we will have less livelihoods for people in our country," he told voters. “You don't gain money by leaving the EU. You make your economy smaller, you have fewer jobs, less tax revenues, so therefore you have a big hole in your public finances.”

Members of the Labour Party, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats also worry that British influence over international affairs would suffer, since many world leaders have spoken out against the separation.

The specter of a Brexit has concerned many world leaders, who believe Britain is stronger as a part of the EU.
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
The specter of a Brexit has concerned many world leaders, who believe Britain is stronger as a part of the EU.

The Global Response

The possibility of a British departure from the EU has alarmed world leaders across the globe, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama. At a summit in May, G7 leaders warned that a Brexit would "reverse the trend towards greater global trade and investment, and the jobs they create.”

One week before the vote, Merkel said the U.K. would “no longer be able to benefit from the advantages of the European common market,” making it a “third party” to the EU if it votes to leave. "I can't imagine that [Britain's status after leaving] would be any kind of advantage, but the decision is ultimately up to the Britons," she added.

During a four-day trip to Britain, Xi expressed his hopes that the U.K. would maintain its EU membership. "China hopes to see a prosperous Europe and a united EU, and hopes Britain, as an important member of the EU, can play an even more positive and constructive role in promoting the deepening development of China-EU ties," Xi was paraphrased as saying by China’s foreign ministry.

Britain would be less appealing to Japanese investors if it were to leave the EU, Abe said while in London. "Many Japanese companies set up their operations in the U.K. precisely because the U.K. is a gateway to the EU," Abe explained.

Trudeau broke his silence on the issue in May, adding his voice to the anti-Brexit movement. “More unity is a path toward greater prosperity. We have a great relationship with a strong and united Europe and certainly hope that that continues,” he said in an interview with Reuters. "I believe we’re always better when we work as closely as possible together and separatism, or division, doesn’t seem to be a productive path for countries."

Flanked by Cameron at a press conference in London, Obama also warned Brits in April that leaving the EU would push the U.K. to the “back of the queue” in trade negotiations with the U.S. “The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner, and the United Kingdom is at its best when it’s helping to lead a strong Europe,” Obama said, praising the “extraordinary” economic benefits the Single Market gives Britain.

In remarks that some have characterized as threatening, Obama added: “I think it’s fair to say that maybe, some point down the line, there might be a U.K.-U.S. trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done.”

Threatening or not, Obama’s words cannot be easily ignored: American investment in the EU is three times higher than in all of Asia -- and Britain leads the EU in U.S. investments, according to the European Commission.

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