when i first heard about this story, i thought that the newscaster said "breakfast", which seemed bizarre. i know that the british take their breakfasts pretty seriously [as seriously as the heart attacks they cause], but it seemed excessive that they were having some kind of national referendum about a meal. then, of course, i figured out that they meant brexit, which is the successor to grexit, which never happened, but was the name given to the possibility that greece could leave [or be forced out of] the european union. the united kingdom, however, has gone farther than greece ever did and will be holding a referendum on whether or not to dissociate themselves from the e.u. on the 23rd of june.
the polls show that the race is exceedingly tight, although it should be pointed out that those same polls also said that the 2015 uk election was just as tight, up until the moment when david cameron's conservative party rolled to a comfortable majority. in recent days, emotions around the debate have risen after labour mp [and a strong supporter of the "remain" campaign] jo cox was violently murdered by a man named thomas mair, but who prefers to be known as "death to traitors, freedom for britain". that name, along with the allegation that he shouted "britain first" as he repeatedly shot and stabbed cox, has fed fears that the "leave" campaign is, at its heart, a racist scare campaign tweaked with politically correct language.
leaders of the "leave" campaign have been quick to denounce cox's murder and to reassure people that this is clearly the act of one mentally ill man. it's tough to argue with that, given that even the magistrate in his preliminary hearing said that it was obvious he was in need of a psychiatric evaluation. however, it seems that voters aren't so convinced by the argument. within the day that cox was murdered, one poll [see earlier link] found that support for the "leave" side dropped 7%. in a race as tight as this one appears to be, that kind of shift is massive.
the referendum had already been deeply divisive, and these most recent events have pushed things still further, however, the fact remains that on thursday, voters in the united kingdom are going to the polls.
as i mentioned, the referendum fulfills a promise made by british prime minister david cameron. however, cameron is urging voters to opt to remain. huh?
you see, cameron made the promise chiefly to placate some of those in his party who very much do want to leave and also because he felt promising such a vote would help draw votes away from the farther-right u.k. independence party, who had fared well in the elections to the european parliament [although they haven't fared so well in the parliament itself]. whether or not that was a good idea is something cameron is likely to ask himself as he's awaiting results and chewing off his own fingernails on thursday evening.
one of cameron's chief arguments in favour of staying is that he negotiated a compromise with the e.u. that would accomplish the goals he had for leaving without having to go through the actual process. his agreement allows britain to
- cap child support payments sent from migrants working in britain at a level commensurate with the government's estimate of the cost of living in the country to which the money is being sent [i.e., support money will not be sent based on the cost of living in the u.k., where it is far more expensive].
- limit the benefits given to low-wage workers from other e.u. countries for the first four years that they live in the u.k.
- continue using the pound [which has not been an issue per se, but protects the u.k. from having to bail out the euro, since they won't be using it]
- extend special protections to london-based financial institutions, to exempt them from e.u. regulations
- limit future involvement in the e.u., including the creation of a veto system that would allow national governments to overturn decisions by the european commission [which is not the parliament, but a group appointed by the elected members of parliament and the ones who have ultimate say over e.u. business]
you can read a much more detailed assessment of the cameron deal here.
- that the u.k. is paying billions of dollars into the e.u. every year, money that could be better spent at home
- that the union's "open border" policy forces the u.k. to take in more immigrants and refugees than it can handle, putting downward pressure on wages and straining public services.
i'm being a bit facetious there, because it's not like the u.k. would just cease to be part of the european union on the 24th. yes, it's something that could be voted on immediately, but it would more than likely take a couple of years to work out all the details. [even that's just a guess, because only one country, greenland, has ever left the e.u. and you can't really use greenland as a comparison to the u.k., beyond saying they're both islands. but that doesn't mean that people haven't tried.]
but if i'm being facetious, it's nothing compared to the people who are dangling that £20 billion figure. because that's the gross contribution the u.k. makes to the european union budget. in point of fact, the u.k. gets a rebate on that amount before it ever leaves the country and then a considerable amount comes back in the form of public and private sector investments made by the e.u., leaving the net contribution at closer to £8.5 billion. the still means that britain is a net contributor to the e.u. [i.e., they pay in more money than they get out], but leaving the e.u. won't save anything close to £20 billion.
nonetheless, the "leave" campaign has pointed out that when the u.k. joined the union, it was only nine countries. now it's twenty-eight and it looks like they're willing to let just about anybody in these days. the concern is that, as more countries, especially those from eastern europe, are admitted, wealthier countries like the u.k. will have to contribute more to prop up their fragile economies. in 2005, they were forced to reduce the rebate that they got in order to get more money into the european budget, which in turn offset the costs involved in admitting newer, poorer members.
however, that's a little misleading, because, while there was a somewhat significant increase in 2013, britain's payments to the e.u. have increased only slightly in the last fifteen years. the gross payment has increased, but the rebates paid have increased as well, meaning that the net increase has been fairly little. and contributions look set to decrease even further over the next five years. [side note :: there are occasional spikes in budgetary contributions due to the seven year cycle of e.u. budgets. towards the end of a cycle, projects that have been in the planning stages start to require larger sums of money as they come to fruition.]
the "remain" campaign has warned that billions of dollars will be yanked out of the u.k. economy and cost thousands of jobs, which sounds pretty scary, but it assumes that there would be no benefits to e.u. countries maintaining its current level of trade with the u.k. that's just silly. the u.k. imports more goods from europe than it exports to them [and the gap grows every year], and no business owners in their right mind are going to want to give that up. more likely- really, the only possible solution- is that part of the "brexit" package will include terms for settling a new trade agreement that allows the u.k. to continue trading with the european common market.
norway and switzerland are both non-union members who have trade agreements with the e.u. in order to access the single market, they pay money into the e.u. budget, which is what the u.k. would expect to do if they leave. so how much would that cost? the "leavers" say "a lot less than what we pay now" and "remainders" say that it would be about the same, but without all the benefits of membership. in fact, kind of depends on which example you take. as of 2011, the u.k. was paying roughly £128 per capita for membership in the e.u. at the same time, switzerland was paying about £53 per capita to participate in the single market. however norway was paying £106 per capita. neither of those countries are the u.k., but it raises an interesting, deeply confusing point: the cost would likely be less, but how much less is hard to calculate. [read more]
also worth considering is what the money that goes into the european budget actually does. one of the great complains against it is that the e.u. does little with the money except create more bureaucracy and there is certainly a lot of money put into regulatory bodies. the pro-brexit site open europe estimates the costs that those european-driven regulations is in the tens of billions for businesses in the u.k. most interesting, however, is the list they give of the five costliest regulatory bodies.
four of the five initiatives identified are ones that protect the rights of workers and protect the environment. that's not terribly surprising, since europe are to the left of the u.k. on a lot of issues that involve employment and the environment, and there's nothing to stop the u.k. government from enacting its own rules with the same effects. but it raises the question of what exactly the "leavers" are trying to get rid of. as it stands, it seems like the chief enemies are workers with rights, the environment [including things like protected species and conservation areas] and possibly human rights in general, since the government has committed to repealing the law that forces britain to accept decisions of the european court of human rights as precedent. [side note :: the court of human rights is not part of the e.u., so the referendum will not affect the u.k.'s participation in that body. but i do think that the fact that so many of the people who want to opt out of the e.u. also want to opt out of following the court is worth mentioning.]
wow. all of that and not one mention of the only thing that seems to be on the minds of most voters: immigrants. well, there is a reason why i've left this to the end, which is that i was hoping that you'd go through all the dry number-y stuff before getting to the thing that most likely to set off powder kegs of emotion. when mr. deathtotraitorsfreedomforbritain shot and stabbed jo cox to death, he was not doing so because of a disagreement over gross versus net contributions to the european budget.
when people were calling attention to the fact that the uk independence party had made a poster in favour of leaving [the party is not a participant in the official "leave" campaign, but is running its own parallel campaign] that resembled a piece of actual nazi propaganda, it was not a poster about the detrimental effects of european regulations on the u.k.
this is a very touchy area and the reason that politicians are using it is precisely because it drives up the emotional temperature. fast, cheap travel and enormous differences in earning potential have brought cultures into closer and closer contact and this has frequently raised tensions. the idea that a referendum on whether or not the united kingdom should remain part of the european union will somehow resolve tensions about immigration, cultural change, reasonable accommodation and the legacy of colonialism, is facile.
nonetheless, there are clearly implications for immigration whether the u.k. votes to stay or leave and they should be addressed.
the case put forward by vote leave, take control is that the influx of immigrants into the u.k. is untenable and will eventually bankrupt programs like the nhs [national health service]. their estimate of the net number of immigrants into the u.k. per year is 250,000. others put the number at closer to 300,000, but suffice it to say that it's in that ballpark. [net immigration is the difference between the number of people who arrive versus the number of people who leave. the actual number of immigrants into the u.k. is, of course, higher, but is partly offset by departures.]
so, in a country with a population of 64 million, how big a deal is another 300,000 per year? canada, with a population about half that size, receives about 250,000 immigrants per year, the vast majority of them in or around just three cities- vancouver, toronto and montreal. now, canada and the u.k. are clearly different, but the idea that a country simply cannot handle that number of immigrants relative to its existing population is clearly wrong. in both countries, immigrants on the whole pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits and the strain on social programs like health services is made much worse by government cutbacks than by increased demand.
between 2011 and 2015, the population of the u.k. increased by around 1 million, which means that the only reason why the country continues to grow is because of the 250-300,000 immigrants it allows in per year. countries with aging and declining populations are at risk of losing social services, because they no longer have the tax base to support them. so far from causing problems, immigration may be the only thing that is saving britain's social safety net.
that said, the conservatives came to power promising to reduce the number of immigrants it admitted to 100,000 per year, so it's clear that they're not coming closing to meeting that target. and since they did receive a majority, it's not unreasonable to assume that's a target most citizens want them to hit.
but it's not just the number of immigrants that is an issue, but who those immigrants might be. in the age of perpetual terrorism, taking measures to protect your citizens is just common sense. and with attacks in france and belgium still fresh in all of our minds, one could understand why the e.u.'s free-flowing open border policy makes some people uncomfortable. and while it's true that border crossing have been strengthened in the wake of those attacks, the best way to guard against terrorists, or other criminals, since terrorism isn't the only, or even the biggest crime problem europe faces, is not to let the bad people in to begin with.
now, we're going to leave aside commentary on how a lot of terrorists are homegrown in europe, or about how restricting certain people because of their religion or ethnicity is racism, no matter what authorities call it. that's not because those aren't important issues, but because they're secondary to issues of immigration into the united kingdom from europe.
about half of the immigrants that enter the u.k. every year come from the e.u., so any discussion about these immigration rules only refers to the 150-180,000 from european countries.
in order to allow people to move freely and easily within the cramped space that is europe, the e.u. created something known as the schengen area, a region where citizens of any of the participating countries could travel without having to show passports or go through other border controls. for the purposes of travel, the schengen area functions as one country. this makes things a lot easier for people who do business in multiple countries [which includes people who work and live in different countries], but it does create potential security risks. it's easier for criminals to move around and do business undetected, for instance, as long as they hold a european passport. and it rests on the assumption that all countries will be equally vigilant and incorruptible when it comes to letting people in.
now, the europeans aren't completely unaware of the risks. countries who join the e.u. are obliged to join the schengen area, but they also have to prove that they're capable of maintaining certain standards. bulgaria and romania, who joined the e.u. in 2007, have had their admittance to the schengen area blocked, because of concerns about corruption, the presence of organised crime and their preparedness to handle the expected number of immigration requests. cyprus has held off on joining schengen until its own, sometimes violent, territorial dispute is settled. so it's not like there aren't safeguards, it's just that those concerned with the effect of immigration in the u.k. don't necessarily trust bulgaria to check who should be moving to britain.
but here's the thing: none of that matters, because the u.k. isn't part of the schengen area.
although it's required now for e.u. members to join, when the area was established, the u.k. and the republic of ireland were allowed to opt out. people coming to either country from europe have to go through the same border checks as i do [and they don't get to stand in the much shorter "commonwealth citizens" line at heathrow]. as of 2004, the u.k. signed on to the police and security provisions of the agreement, to benefit from information sharing, but that's it.
congratulations. you made it. this was a really long post, but here you are and it's almost over.
the economist has referred to the entire referendum campaign- including both sides- as "parochial and vacuous". i haven't seen enough of the coverage to say one way or the other, but it does seem that there are a lot of statements being tossed around that are either half-explained, misleading or inflammatory and none of that is helpful in a situation that calls for serious thought. i have found some extremely good materials online, many of them through the bbc, who have a cache of all sorts of information, including a convenient summary of major issues and the positions of both sides of the debate.
i imagine that if you're eligible to vote, you've already decided how, but if not, please take a moment to look around [the linked articles in this post explain things better than i ever could] and take a moment to think about what would be lost and gained by leaving the e.u., because it is an important decision with ramifications far beyond the u.k. and even europe.
choose wisely and well and good luck on the 23rd.