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Six questions about the British referendum and a possible Brexit

The shocking murder of MP Jo Cox has brought it home to the British public that the referendum debate is in disarray. How has the campaign been handled and what would be the consequences of a Brexit? Jan Rood, Professor by special appointment of European Integration, and political scientist Hans Vollaard answer some pressing questions.

June 23 is Referendum day: the day when the people of Great Britain will vote in a referendum on whether their country should remain within the European Union.

1. Will it really come to a Brexit?

Last week the Brexit camp seemed to be in the lead, but since the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox those in favour of staying in the EU are gaining ground. Both experts believe that the death of Jo Cox, who was a member of the 'remain' camp, has made it even more difficult to predict the outcome. Rood: ‘It's clear that this tragedy will have an effect; both camps will have to moderate their tone. Labour voters will probably turn out in larger numbers to vote for remaining. Even so, it's hard to say what the real effect will be.' He leans towards 'pessimism' and fears that the Brexit camp will win. Rood: 'The polls can always get it wrong, but right now I'm afraid that the momentum is moving towards a Brexit.' 

Vollaard isn't making any predictions yet. 'It's a tense situation. Right now it is too close a call to predict anything. It depends completely on who actually goes out and votes on the day. Those in favour of Brexit, mainly older people, are more motivated to vote than young people, who are generally pro-European. The Better In camp needs to stimulate as many young people as possible to actually go and vote.'

2. Why do so many British people want to leave the EU?

The biggest fear among those in favour of Brexit is the huge influx of migrants, Rood explains. 'Reputable institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are warning about the damaging effects on the economy. But facts and figures seem to have little effect on people in the run-up to the referendum.' Vollaard continues: 'There are so many misunderstandings doing the rounds, for example about the number of migrants in the UK or how much money is siphoned off to the EU. Emotions around these issues are playing a huge role. Politicians are calling one another liars, which is muddying the waters even more.' Both researchers point out the ambiguous role Prime Minister David Cameron is playing. As a critic of the EU, his leadership of the remain campaign is none too convincing. Not only that, there are deep divisions within his own party.

3. What would be the consequences of a Brexit?

That's the million-dollar question. In the very short term there will be the political consequences. In the event of a Brexit, Cameron will probably have to stand down. Labour leader Jeremy Corbin is also in the firing line because of his lack of any active campaigning for the Better In camp. And there could be some serious shifts in the financial markets if the vote goes in favour of Brexit. Vollaard: ‘The value of the pound is already falling and financial institutions are preparing possible scenarios.'

An exit from the EU will cause a lot of uncertainty in the daily lives of the British people. All kinds of European subsidies and treaties will come to a halt: from EU grants used by British scientists to European healthcare insurances for retired British citizens living in other European countries. The exact consequences are difficult to predict, but uncertainty is by definition damaging for the economy, according to  Rood. ‘If there's one thing investors dislike, it's uncertainty. New tariffs and quotas will also make trade more difficult, which is bad for the rather volatile service sector.'

4. How would the British exit from the EU?

The UK can't just immediately leave the EU. In the event of a Brexit, the country is in principle still bound to all EU legislation for a period of two years, Vollaard stresses. The UK first has to inform the Council of Europe, where all the heads of government have a seat, of its intention to leave. The Court will have to adopt a position on the mandate that the European Commission will be given to negotiate the conditions for exiting. That could be quite a complex affair because in 2017 there are elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, which could mean changes of government.

Vollaard: ‘On the one hand, the Council of Europe wants to send out a strongly discouraging signal to other countries: you can't leave the EU and still retain the privileges of membership. On the other hand, it is not in the interest of countries like the Netherlands and Belgium to make trade with the UK difficult because we are so dependent on that trade.' Rood points to the fact that the term of two years could be extended in agreement with the member states. 'But the EU won't want to keep an unwilling member for long.' The terms of the separation will have to be determined in the coming years first, and then the practicalities will have to be sorted out. The actual separation could take up to seven years, Rood estimates.

5. What would be the consequences for the EU?

Both researchers point to other major problems facing the EU, such as migration, the Greek debt crisis and the inadequate level of democracy in such EU member states as Hungary and Poland. A Brexit would complicate how all these issues are approached. The foundation of the EU is weak, according to Rood, and the British scepticism is weakening that basis even further, because it is feeding similar sentiments elsewhere in Europe, like: why should we accept the straitjacket imposed by Brussels? Power relations will also change. The Netherlands and Britain have to date collaborated in numerous dossiers and petitions, such as reducing the levies to Brussels. Rood believes that without the Brits, France and Germany will become more dominant within the EU. 

 Vollaard is putting the finishing touches to his book about the disintegration of the EU and what we can learn from empires that fell apart in the past. It seems that even empires that have internal divisions can last for a very long time; the Holy Roman Empire, for example, existed for around a thousand years. 'It is not uncommon for empires to lose a member region now and then. To survive, it is important that those parts of an empire that wield the power are prepared to provide adequate resources to keep the empire going. In terms of the EU, that means that Germany will play a crucial role.' 

6.  What would a Brexit mean to the Netherlands?

The Netherlands is vulnerable because it does more trade with the UK than other European countries, particularly in electronics, cars, chemicals and food. That export will probably suffer because products will become more expensive without a free trade area, the researchers warn. There may be benefits for the Netherlands in the service sector, Rood comments. 'If there's a Brexit, large financial institutions may want to move their headquarters to the European mainland, possibly to the Amsterdam region, which could mean a boost for the Netherlands.' A Brexit could also give an incentive to Eurosceptics in the Netherlands. 'But that could have benefits for the Europe debate in the Netherlands,' Vollaard concludes.

(LvP)

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