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UK referendum on EU membership: Four big issues

Emil Vassilyan Emil Vassilyan

The time will soon come when the UK electorate will vote in a referendum on whether or not the UK should remain a Member State of the European Union. In many respects British politicians are failing to give the electorate the information they need to make an informed decision.

In 1975, my grandad voted for the UK to remain a member of the European Economic Community (commonly referred to as the Common Market) on the primary grounds that he wanted cheaper wine. Grandad was intelligent, he held a senior position in a big insurance company, he understood business and he paid attention to politics. Yet his answer was not altogether flippant – it reflected the debate at that time. The 1975 'yes' campaign said the most important issues were “food and money and jobs”. 67% voted to stay in the EEC, on a 65% turnout.

And here we are 41 years later, facing another in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European system. Reading the UK press you could be forgiven for thinking that the 2016 referendum is about Cameron’s renegotiation. It is not. It is much, much bigger than achieved with fellow EU leaders in negotiations ahead of the vote.

The 2016 referendum is by far the most important vote that any of today’s politicians will ever be involved in. The issues at stake are critical for the long term future of the UK and its prosperity. The vote goes right to the heart of what the British people want their country and society to be, how the UK wants to relate with its neighbours and the wider world, how the UK will construct an environment for economic growth, including trading overseas, and whether the UK prefers to face the future alone or as part of a wider regional community.

There follows four critical questions which are not (yet?) being debated in view of the great British public.

1. Would growth be stronger or weaker, more sustainable or more fragile, outside the EU? The UK is currently one of the few EU member states experiencing economic growth. To help frame your thinking: The UK’s net contribution to the EU’s estimated 2015 calendar year budget is £8.5bn.[1] Compare that with total UK government spending in fiscal year 2015 of £748bn, of which £46bn went on interest on government debt; £150bn on pensions; GDP was £1,808bn.[2] However, UK 2015 trade to and from the EU Member States was in excess of £350bn.[3]

2. How will the UK help solve the migration crisis in the short and long term? The continent of Europe is experiencing mass migration the likes of which have not been seen in 75 years. Now as then the main trigger has been regional conflict.

3. Will the UK have greater influence either alone or as a member of the EU? Some charts to put that in context:

4. What will be the consequences if the UK chooses to leave the EU? For example, a result to leave the EU doesn’t mean that the UK leaves immediately. The UK would remain a Member State of the EU while it negotiates an exit. In the meantime it would still be paying its contribution to the EU budget. EU treaties allow for a two year negotiation, but also allow for it to take longer. No Member State has ever left the EU before.[4] so how will that negotiation unfold? We do know it is in the interests of the remaining 27 EU Member States to discourage other leavers by striking a hard bargain with the UK. Would that desire to discourage deserters outweigh or dilute any desire of those 27 countries to stay friendly with a relatively affluent sizable neighbour and trading partner?

These are just four critical questions, there are others. The British voters deserve a higher quality debate than they are currently getting. And the UK owes it to the other 27 Member States to ensure that the momentous vote is considered and informed.

The referendum question faced by the British electorate is: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The answer is either yes or no. Democracy is not observed in the home countries of many people seeking sanctuary in the EU. It would be rubbing salt in their wounds if British voters were to vote without considering the gravity of their decision. Or worse, if they didn’t vote at all.

British voters should look their children in the eye and have their interests at front of mind on polling day because the UK referendum result will substantially influence their future.

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Nick Jeffrey is director, public policy at Grant Thornton


[1] Source: HMRC European Union Finances, December 2015

[2] Source:

[3] Source: HMRC, Overseas Trade Statistics

[4] Greenland left the European Economic Community in 1985, being an autonomous country within of the Danish Realm; Algeria gained independence from France in 1962.

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