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On 23 June 2016, the UK settled the question that had been rumbling close to the surface of British politics for a generation: should the country remain within the European Union or go it alone. EU referendum: How did your area vote? Brexit quiz: How much do you know about the EU? Or so it seemed when just over 52 per cent of voters chose Brexit.
Now, more than a year later, argument about the pros and cons of leaving the European Union continues. In 2015, the Tory Party’s general election victory activated a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. David Cameron made the promise at a time when he was under pressure from Eurosceptic backbenchers and when the Tories appeared to be losing votes to Ukip. Most political commentators agree that given a free hand, he would not have wanted a referendum.
Cameron then embarked on a tour of EU capitals as he sought to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership, but vowed to campaign with his “heart and soul” to keep Britain in the bloc. However, several members of his own cabinet campaigned for to leave, which came to be known as “Brexit”. When Britain went to vote, all polls indicated the UK would stay in the EU. Even as the count was underway, Ukip’s Nigel Farage said it looked as if “Remain will edge it”. However, the Leave campaign won, prompting Cameron to announce he would resign as prime minister.
The EU is a single market in which no tariffs are imposed on imports and exports between member states. More than 50 per cent of our exports go to EU countries,” says Sky News, and membership of the bloc means we have always had a say over how trading rules are drawn up. Britain also benefits from trade deals between the EU and other world powers and would lose some of that negotiating power, but would be free to establish its own trade agreements. A middle-ground option would see the UK leave the political aspects of the European Union, meaning it is not bound by EU laws on areas such as agriculture, justice and home affairs, yet remains a member of the single market. That would mean seeking membership of the European Free Trade Area, which currently includes alongside the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage has in the past suggested Britain could follow the lead of Norway – although he has not repeated that since the Brexit vote. But others argue that an “amicable divorce” would not be possible.
If Britain were to join the Norwegian club,” wrote The Economist, “it would remain bound by virtually all EU regulations, including the working-time directive and almost everything dreamed up in Brussels in future. Meanwhile it would no longer have any influence on what those regulations said. Leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson, meanwhile, proposed adopting a Canada-style trade arrangement that would mean access to, but not membership of, the single market. I think we can strike a deal as the Canadians have done based on trade and getting rid of tariffs” and have a “very, very bright future”, he said. The idea was dismissed by Cameron at the time, who said it would mean “years of painful negotiations and a poorer deal than we have today”. It took Canada seven years to get its deal and it needed to ratified by all EU parliaments including regional governments in areas like Wallonia in Belgium. Eurosceptics argue the vast majority of small and medium-sized firms do not trade with the EU but are restricted by a huge regulatory burden imposed from abroad.
A study by the think-tank Open Europe, which campaigned to see the EU radically reformed, found that the worst-case “Brexit” scenario is that the UK economy loses 2. However, it says GDP could rise by 1. Whether other EU countries would offer such generous terms is one of the big unknowns of the debate. Brexit campaigners argue it would be in the interests of other European countries to re-establish free trade, but their opponents suggest that the EU would want to make life hard for Britain in order to discourage further breakaways.
Pro-Europeans think the UK’s status as one of the world’s biggest financial centres will be diminished if it is no longer seen as a gateway to the EU for the likes of US banks. That’s especially because by leaving the single market firms based in the UK would lose the rights to “passport” freely across the continent. An alternative option could be to secure a bespoke regulatory “equivalence” deal. Since the Brexit vote, many banks and financial firms have begun establishing EU bases to take their operations out of the UK. On the other hand, Brexit campaigners suggest that free from EU rules and regulations, Britain could reinvent itself as a Singapore-style supercharged economy. The number of jobs banks and others are currently talking about moving to the EU remains modest, too. Fears that carmakers could scale back or even end production in the UK if vehicles could no longer be exported tax-free to Europe were underlined by BMW’s decision to remind its UK employees at Rolls-Royce and Mini of the “significant benefit” EU membership confers.
Brexit supporters remain adamant a deal to allow continued tariff-free trading will be secured even if the UK leaves the single market, as Britain has a large trade deficit with the EU and so it is in Europe’s interest to find a compromise. For Brexiters, sovereignty was seen as a simple win: few disagree that EU membership involves giving up some control over our own affairs. Pro-Brexit Labour MP Kate Hoey said the EU is “an attempt to replace the democratic power of the people with a permanent administration in the interests of big business”. Those on the right of the Conservative party may disagree with her emphasis, but they agree that EU institutions have drained power from the British Parliament. The trouble is that most of us have no clue as to how the Brussels monolith works, or who’s in charge,” said Stay or Go, the Connell Guide to the EU referendum.