Key questions for the coming EU referendum

23 February 2016 

Simon Bulmer  - Associate Fellow, SPERI, & Professor of European Politics, University of Sheffield

We now have a date but there are plenty of big questions and unknown steps between now and 23rd June

This was the tweet from European Council President Donald Tusk late in the evening of 19th February 2016 that indicated the marathon European Council session had found a deal on David Cameron’s renegotiation demands. It was followed the next day by a Cabinet meeting and David Cameron’s endorsement of a Remain vote. The majority of Cabinet members declared their hand as to whether they will campaign for ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. Boris Johnson left it another 24 hours before declaring his support for ‘Leave’.

The campaign will now take shape as the debate develops towards the referendum on 23rd June 2016. How can we expect the referendum to unfold? This question is not about predicting the result but about identifying some of the steps along the way.

A first point is that there will be many Remain or Leave voters who have already made up their mind, independently of the renegotiations. Prior to the outcome of the renegotiations the polling data indicated that the referendum outcome is wide open. In the first half of February 2016 three polls predicted a victory for Leave and three for Remain. The poll of polls by WhatUKThinks identifies 51 per cent in favour of Remain and 49 in favour of Leave. Yet some 20 per cent are ‘Don’t Knows’. All is still to play for.

Polling is itself under the spotlight, given the erroneous predictions made ahead of the 2015 general election. The challenge for pollsters this time is to recognize that ‘leavers’ tend to be more passionate, vocal and vociferous, creating risks for internet-based polls. At the same time because of their passion ‘leavers’ are likely to be easier to mobilize to vote on 23rd June. Quite simply, the Leave campaign can present simpler messages: ‘taking control of our borders’, ‘regaining control over sovereignty’. By contrast, the ‘remainers’ seem stuck with identifying more diffuse benefits of ‘being better off together’. It is notable that critics of the EU like Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond and Home Secretary Theresa May are in the Remain camp. Have they realized the risks of leaving, and will they explain them? The one advantage for the Remain campaign is that it can mobilize a ‘Project Fear’ style campaign by pointing to the fact that ‘leavers’ do not know what kind of accommodation can be struck with the EU in the event of Brexit. ‘Scaremongering’ may have worked in the Scottish referendum but a more positive message will be needed for the vote on the EU because the starting point in the polls is much more evenly balanced and the Remain campaign has to work harder to mobilize its voters.

An interesting question concerns the impact of the campaigns themselves. The Leave campaign is split between different organizations – for instance, ‘Grassroots Out’ and ‘Vote Leave’ – with ‘leavers’ from the Cabinet keeping their distance from the likes of Nigel Farage and George Galloway in Grassroots Out. The ‘remainers’ have drawn lessons from the Scottish referendum such that Labour has its separate campaign and is unlikely to campaign alongside David Cameron and Conservative ‘remainers’. How is the somewhat confusing array of campaigns going to play with voters?

A further factor during the campaign relates to how popular dislike of politicians will be channeled. During the Scottish referendum the Yes campaign was able to mobilize antipathy to the ‘Westminster elite’, particularly in some Labour heartlands where there was strong resentment of austerity and the bedroom tax. Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader as an anti-establishment figure in the Labour Party by advocating a new campaigning approach and through rejecting significant features of the New Labour years. Yet in the EU referendum Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn are anti-establishmentarians in the Remain camp. EU membership has always been seen as something of an establishment position, supported from the middle ground of the party political spectrum. Will Corbyn and Sturgeon be able to weaken the anti-establishment character of a Brexit campaign, particularly one fuelled by a rather partisan print media?

Photo by Marsha Reid on Unsplash

The campaign will of course be differentiated across the United Kingdom even if it is the English campaign that is heard most loudly. Most obviously, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the hot phase of the referendum campaign will be shorter due to elections to devolved parliament/assemblies on 5th May. However, there are other localized differences. For instance, the Leave campaign’s appeal for ‘control over our borders’ will play very differently in Northern Ireland, where a range of cross-border initiatives with the Irish Republic (and EU funding) has underpinned the post-devolution settlement.

The Scottish referendum witnessed the emergence of a sense of ‘civic nationalism’: a strong sense of citizen engagement with Scottish political institutions and whether these should be devolved or independent. In consequence, Scotland has a stronger sense of ‘self’. In England, by contrast, this sense of self is far less clear-cut. The divisions within the Conservative Party are essentially a post-Thatcher schism between nationalist and neo-liberal forces. Should Britain retain its sovereignty and control? Are its trading aspirations best achieved as an EU member or in the wider global economy? This division between nationalism and liberal global trading is itself a rather English phenomenon, centred on Westminster and the City of London. It raises the question of whether there are different considerations in the north of England and whether there is space for a distinctive debate ‘north of the Watford gap’.

In any event the referendum outcome presents a momentous choice for the British electorate. Above all, the need is for an informed debate. As Donald Tusk put it in his 2 February letter to David Cameron sketching the outline of the eventual deal with the British government: ‘To be, or not to be together, that is the question’.

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