As voters in Britain hold a referendum on Thursday (June 23) on whether to keep their country in the European Union, faculty members at the School of Global and International Studies foresee consequences for a vote to leave.
A member of the European Union since 1973, Britain is holding a referendum popularly called the “Brexit” vote after the promise of Prime Minister David Cameron to do so if he were re-elected to his post. Cameron himself is heading the camp of those backing the movement to remain in the EU. Former London mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Minister Michael Gove are leading the “Leave” movement. British sovereignty and issues surrounding immigration are top issues among those backing a departure from the EU.
The fact the exit vote arose at all, said Padraic Kenney, chair of the department of International Studies at SGIS, is illustrative of common tendency.
“The popularity of the Brexit option, whether or not it wins, is a perfect example of how people do not always vote in their best interests,” Kenney said. “But this happens all the time in democracies. All over Europe in the last couple of years, to say nothing of the United States or other parts of the world, many people have voted to make a statement, to express feelings beyond the logic of economics and geopolitics. That’s normal. But since that is true, it was foolish to plan a referendum and expect a purely rational result.”
“The Brexit vote is fundamentally about identity,” said Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor in the department of International Studies at SGIS, also an associate professor in the IU department of Geography. “Many Britons, especially lower-income people, believe that the large number of migrants from Eastern Europe and the smaller number of refugees admitted into the UK are changing what it means to be British.” Dunn’s current research focuses particularly on issues of refugees in Europe and the former USSR.
Dunn added that proponents of leaving the EU are concerned Britain’s membership is fundamentally changing British life. “They also worry that EU standards will change the products they love or ban cultural icons,” Dunn said. “But leaving the EU won’t give Britain the kind of sovereignty the ‘Leave’ campaign hopes for. Outside the EU, Britain will have no say over migration policies that could bring hundreds of thousands of refugees to Britain’s doorstep. Many Eastern European workers would come and work illegally, which would drive wage rates even lower. Because it makes economic sense to produce products that can also be exported to the larger EU market, European standards will still effectively control British products–but if Britain leaves the EU it won’t have any say in those standards.
Plus, a Brexit would damage the UK economy by slowing exports, making it harder for firms to get skilled labor, and making financial transactions more costly. If Britain votes ‘yes,’ it will lose its seat at the European table, but it won’t be able to recreate the isolationist control or the cultural identity that the pro-Brexit camp wants. There is no going back from globalization.”
Tim Hellwig, Director of the Institute for European Studies at SGIS, agreed that the potential financial issues an EU departure would bring are large. He added that it might also have unintended social impacts across the United Kingdom.
“The economic argument lies squarely with the ‘remain’ side,” Hellwig said. “The costs of leaving the EU appear far greater than the benefits with respect to trade, investment, and finance. If the ‘leave’ side has an appeal, it is regarding political self-determination. But even then, a British exit from the EU could have adverse political effects insomuch as it might reintroduce instability in Northern Ireland and fuel renewed separatism in Scotland, neither of which is in UK’s interest.
Hellwig said he agrees with polling indicating a tight vote that favors staying in the EU. “If I had to go out on a limb, I’d say I am cautiously optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and that the UK will choose to remain in the EU,” he said. “But it certainly will be a close vote.”
Kenney said that if Britain votes to depart, it is not a death knell for the EU. “The European Union will survive,” he said, “in part because the EU President, Donald Tusk, has been trying to push it away from the ‘more Europe is always better’ idealism that has accompanied it since birth.”