This is the first in a series of decoders by our summer intern, Emma Bapt. For more decoders explaining big events, click here.

“Brexit Bouquet” (L), “Stronger In Arrangement,” London, 2 June 2016.
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

By Emma Bapt

Britain votes on June 23 whether to remain in the European Union in a referendum with potentially momentous consequences for the nation’s future, European unity and the world’s economy.

The question on the paper ballot is simple: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

But the implications of a vote by Europe’s second biggest economy to quit the EU — “Brexit” — are anything but simple.


The ballot

The referendum is surely the most important vote in European history in a generation — with a very uncertain outcome and unpredictable fallout.

A vote to leave would reach far beyond the British Isles, with complicated and potentially wrenching ripple effects on British politics, the UK’s role in the world, the EU’s future and global finance and trade.

Those favoring a leave vote say Britain, a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, would be stronger economically, free of EU red tape and membership fees, and better able to control immigration.

“A once in a generation decision”

Once the world’s mightiest empire, Britain has long been ambivalent towards Europe, where over the centuries many of its citizens have died fighting different continental powers.

Many Britons do not consider the United Kingdom — England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — to be part of the European continent. “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off,” is a famous apocryphal British headline.

Britain was not one of the six founding members of the economic grouping that was formed in the 1950s following World War Two and which preceded the EU. It joined what was called Europe’s Common Market only in 1973. In a referendum on membership two years later, two thirds of British voters elected to stay in.


British Union flag outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 1 June 2016.
(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Today Britain is not one of the 19 EU countries in the eurozone monetary union — pound sterling is still its currency. Nor is it in the Schengen area that permits passport-free travel through 26 European countries.

But it benefits from the clout the EU wields as the world’s biggest trading bloc — power that the “stay” camp says would vanish if Britain pulls out. And its citizens can work and study without visas in any of the 28 EU countries.

(And vice versa. I am a French citizen doing my university studies in London!)

Britain’s quandary is reflected in a gaping split within the ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron, who favors staying in the EU, called the vote to placate members of his own party, some in his cabinet, who have long lobbied to leave the Union and who fear the Euro-skeptic, right-wing UK Independent Party will erode their base.

Little wonder that the government, whose legitimacy hangs on the outcome, has called the vote “a once in a generation decision.”

As Bank of England Governor Mark Carney put it: “Leaving the EU is Britain’s biggest domestic risk.”

Who can vote?

British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who live in the UK can vote, in addition to Britons who have lived abroad for less than 15 years.

How will the vote work?

Voters will be asked to check either “yes” or “no” to a single question on a paper ballot: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

Whichever camp takes the most votes will win. No minimum turnout is required.

When will the results be known?

Officials will start counting ballots in 12 regional centers as soon as the polls close at 10 pm UK time on June 23.

It is not known exactly when a clear picture will emerge, although a projected result is expected in the middle of the night. The final result will eventually be announced at Manchester Town Hall.

What will happen after June 23?

If Britain votes out, it is expected to take two years and possibly longer for the country to withdraw from the EU. It would need to negotiate a formal withdrawal agreement as well as the terms of its new relationship with the bloc.

During this period, Britain would continue to comply with EU laws and treaties, but it would not be able to take part in any decision-making.

If it decides to stay, the UK has negotiated special status within the EU:

  • The UK will not join the euro, keeping its own currency.
  • The UK will maintain border controls.
  • The UK will not be part of further European political integration.
  • There will be tougher restrictions for EU migrants on access to British welfare system.

For months, opinion polls showed the “Stay” camp in the lead, but more recently surveys have tightened considerably. Punters still think “Stay” will win, but the polls are just about even.

Indeed, debate continues to rage.

The “Leave” campaign says:

  • Money paid to Brussels is money wasted. Billions of pounds in annual membership fees could be used inside the UK, for example on health services.
  • EU red tape is suffocating the UK economy.
  • Brexit would allow Britain to control the inflow of migrants.

For the “Stay” campaign:

  • Remaining in would guarantee full access to the EU’s vast single market, meaning more exports, more jobs and cheaper imports.
  • Remaining in guarantees the UK’s attractiveness to foreign investment and jobs, and protects London’s status as Europe’s financial capital.
  • Brexit would drive down the value of the pound, raising the prices of imported household goods.
  • Brexit would mean UK citizens would not longer be able to move freely within the EU.
  • Britain’s status and reputation in the world would be damaged by leaving.

EU dynamics are in the balance.

The referendum raises uncomfortable questions about the future of Europe just as the bloc is struggling with a wave of refugees, a sluggish economy and a rise in right-wing, populist, Euro-skeptic parties.

Simmering opposition to the EU in Britain and elsewhere has been exacerbated by the sudden influx of migrants and refugees whom Brussels is trying, with some difficulty, to distribute across the continent. A withdrawal by Britain would make it more difficult for the EU to deal with the largest inflow of migrants since World War Two.

And while Brexit could induce some firms to quit Britain for the mainland, benefiting some capitals, it could also unsettle internal EU dynamics which have always worked best when France and Germany are on an equal footing.

Depending on its new terms of trade with the EU, Britain could pay more for imports and see its market share shrink in the EU, which currently accounts for 44% of UK exports, which in turn are linked to more than three million UK jobs.

Take the chemical and pharmaceutical industry: 54% of its exports go to the EU.

Uncertainty has markets on edge.

Internally, a vote to leave could spur EU believers Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider quitting the United Kingdom. Scotland voted in 2014 to stay in the UK, but former First Minister Alex Salmond predicted there would be a second Scottish referendum by 2018 if it were to be “dragged” out of the EU.

Britain’s main trading partners including the United States all want Britain to stay in the EU, begging the question of what would happen to London’s bilateral ties should it pull out.

Elsewhere in Europe, mainstream parties fear Brexit would strengthen Euro-skeptic parties in a large number of countries including Germany and France. That, they fear, could set back fresh efforts to harmonize or even induce other countries to leave, undermining the EU’s foundations.

Many questions will remain unanswered until after June 23, part of a cloud of uncertainty that has markets, politicians and pollsters on edge on the eve of the historic vote.

Emma Bapt

Emma Bapt is a first-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying History and War Studies. She has lived in London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Paris. She is interested in learning about the dynamics of conflict and looking at peace-building policy around the world. She is News-Decoder’s summer intern.

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