It has been 40 years since the last referendum on UK membership, two decades in which the issue has never fully been settled. The debate has remained at the forefront of British politics, dividing opinion, separating official party policy lines and now even causing internal party division within current Prime Minister David Cameron’s party and cabinet. At no time in the years since the last referendum has Britain’s rocky relationship with the EU been more relevant than today. With David Cameron’s fulfilment of his pivotal election manifesto promise, an in out referendum regarding Britain’s EU membership (to be held on the 23rd of June 2016), the time has come for a conclusive answer to the lingering question over Britain’s relationship with Brussels.
Be under no illusion, this coming referendum presents us with a profound moment in the history of the country; Cameron has even gone as far to describe leaving the familiarity of the economic, social and political benefits of the EU as a potential “leap in the dark”.
Those who support the campaign to leave argue that the move away from the supranational body will allow Britain to govern itself more effectively, emphasising the fact that the European Commission (which is responsible for the running of the EU) regularly rejects British attempts to reform the union. Moreover they cite the billions that the UK pays into the institution annually, for example paying €17 billion into the EU’s €150 billion budget in 2013 alone. Naturally this movement has gained considerable weight in recent years of a Eurozone economic crisis and increased migration to the UK, as shown with the rise of UKIP in the run up to the last general election.
However, this is a debate which has not manifested itself simply on the fringes of the political system – it remains at the heart of contemporary political debate. Over 100 conservative MPs back the campaign to leave the union, including key cabinet ministers such as Ian Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and even London mayor Boris Johnson.
The campaign to stay in the EU is set to argue that under Cameron’s recent reform deal with Britain’s 27 EU counterparts that the country would remain better off staying in. The key points of this reform deal include: an “emergency brake” mechanism to “phase in” migrants in work benefits for 7 years during times of high migration, lowering child benefit for children of EU migrants living overseas, the amendment of EU treaties to state that references to an ‘ever closer union’ do not apply to the UK and that countries not in the Euro currency zone will not be called upon to fund Euro bail outs.
While sceptics argue this deal is too far from Cameron’s original desires for a British future within the union, EU campaigners contend that it silences any concerns about British membership, giving the country a special status and demonstrating the significant political weight Britain has in defining its terms of membership for a union which relies on its large economy for investment and support.
This side of the debate also has substantial support from the vast majority of the Labour party and the increasingly influential SNP, as well as over 200 Conservative MPs. They argue that the EU, in the words of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “brings investment, jobs and protection for British workers and consumers”. Moreover they argue that in order to remain at the highest echelons of global international politics it would be foolish for the UK to leave the union which cost the UK a mere 0.54% of its vast GDP in 2013 alone. They argue it gives the UK significant trade and migration benefits and solidifies its standing as one of the worlds leading economic powers, with half of overseas investment coming from the EU (supporting 42 million jobs or nearly 14% of jobs in the UK).
While polls suggest that for the time being, public opinion is split fairly evenly on the matter this is set to be one of the fiercest political debates of our time. Both campaign sides, will be given access to a grant of up to £600,000, with a spending limit of £7 million each. David Cameron stated this week that he wishes not to stand for party leadership again, yet this does not mean his goals have been achieved, as he may be facing the possibility of a devastating party division and extremely divided public opinion. The 23rd of June is set to define his political legacy and as well as the fate of the millions of British people.