Written by: Sit Jie Ren (19-I4)
Designed by: Lee En Tong (19-U2)
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On 23 June 2016, a plebiscite was held on the issue of British membership in the European Union (EU). The results shocked the world, which had anticipated that the ‘Remain’ camp would prevail and reaffirm its commitment to Europe. The fallout that followed quickly transformed into one of the greatest media circuses of the 21st Century. This article will examine the various factors that led to Britain’s decision, so that Eunoians can become informed citizens of the world. Do use the Universal Concepts (UC) to guide you.
Britain, being an island nation with a long history of naval dominance, has been effectively isolated from Europe for most of history. Despite the end of Pax Britannica and the steady decline of the Royal Navy as an institution, many British still reject connections with the European Union. In addition, its ability to sustain itself against Nazi Germany in World War II on its own lent weight to the notion that Britain could preserve its empire and status, separate from Europe. Hence, Britain did not join the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. However, the post-war economic decline quickly change attitudes, and Britain began to be receptive towards furthering ties to the continent. In a 1975 nationwide referendum, 67% of the votes were cast in favour of Britain joining the European Economic Community, paving the way for British membership into the organisation (Wilson, S., 2014).
However, as the European Economic Community evolved over the years, forming into the European Union, and pursued greater regional integration, Britain’s resistance towards Europe began to manifest through various exclusions, most notably by refusing to adopt the Euro (€) (Wilson, S., 2014). Euroscepticism has also become more prominent over the years, shown through the 2015 General Elections, whereby UKIP (UK Independence Party), formed with the goal of leaving the EU, polling 12.6% of the popular vote (Bloomberg, 2015). This phenomenon was primarily observed in rural regions, which has seen little development or benefits from the EU in contrast with London, which reaped most of the benefits of the EU and became a global financial hub (Bateman, V.N., 2016).
In the 2015 General Elections, David Cameron campaigned for election on the promise that he would hold a plebiscite on British membership in the EU, in an attempt to secure eurosceptic votes (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, 2013). However, he had believed that the ‘Remain’ camp would emerge victorious. Yet, the result that followed proved the contrary, with ‘Leave’ winning by a narrow margin.
Points of Contention
European Institutions & Lawmaking (UC: Power and Influence)
Britain’s disconnect from Europe could be in part attributed to the lingering effects of imperialism in the British psyche. Back in the days of the British Empire, Britain was the dominant global trader, and its influence extended far beyond Europe and across the world (Langfitt, F., 2019). This became a vital campaigning point of the ‘Leave’ camp, which argued that Britain would enjoy greater trade benefits, by negotiating on its own without being bound by EU regulations (Vote Leave Take Control, n.d.).
The ‘Leave’ camp also cited the lack of British control over several governmental institutions as part of their campaigning rhetoric. Presently, several key European institutions have oversight in Britain, such as the European Court of Justice regulating taxes and immigration within the EU, and the regulation of the cat and dog fur trade by the European Commission (Ash, S., 2018). The European Parliament is also able to pass legislation throughout the European Union, including Britain.
Immigration and Border controls (UC: Interdependence)
The lack of British control over its customs also became a heated point of contention during the campaigning period. Within the Schengen Area*, individuals were able to pass freely through European borders, such as from France to Britain, without the need for customs checks. This resulted in many refugees who had sought refuge within European borders, either through border crossings in Greece or Italy, to enter Britain due to its superior living conditions.
In addition, the ‘Leave’ camp also cited the provision for European nationals to seek employment in Britain, who have been accused of competing for jobs with local residents. The ‘Leave’ camp cited a figure of close to ‘2 million’ European nationals entering in the past decade, and opined that many more would follow as ‘new, poorer countries join’ (Vote Leave Take Control, n.d.).
*The Schengen Area is the territory of countries, primarily within the EU, which have abolished immigration and customs checks, allowing for free and undisturbed passage between borders.
Ash, S. (2018, October 19). EU rules into UK law: How’s that going? BBC, Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-45912824
Bateman, V.N. (2016, November 23). Brexit: two centuries in the making. The UK in a Changing Europe, Retrieved from https://ukandeu.ac.uk/brexit-two-centuries-in-the-making/
Bloomberg (2015). The U.K. Election 2015. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-uk-election/
Langfitt, F. (2019, March 17). U.K. Reflects On Identity As Brexit Saga Drags On. NPR News, Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/03/17/704313261/u-k-reflects-on-identity-as-brexit-saga-drags-on
Margaret Thatcher Foundation (1988, September 20). Speech to the College of Europe (“The Bruges Speech”). Retrieved from https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107332
Raidió Teilifís Éireann (2013, January 24). David Cameron pledges EU referendum if Conservatives win next election. Retrieved from https://www.rte.ie/news/2013/0123/364037-david-cameron-eu/
Wilson, S. (2014, April 1). Britain and the EU: A long and rocky relationship. BBC, Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-26515129
Vote Leave Take Control (n.d.). Why Vote Leave. Retrieved from http://www.voteleavetakecontrol.org/why_vote_leave.html