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What is Brexit all about?

Updated Jan 31, 2019 11:46am

The Britain votes today to decide on its European Union (EU) membership in a referendum — known as Brexit, an abbreviation of “Britain Exit”.

Polling stations for 382 local counting areas opened at 6 am and close at 9pm, with most of the results expected between around 1 am and 3 am on June 24.

The United Kingdom (UK) is divided into two camps: Leave and Remain. The survey polls give the latter a slight 2 per cent margin over the former.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron, though in the Remain camp, vowed a referendum to hear the British opinion in his 2015 election campaign. He stated, "It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics."

The bar chart depicts the average of the six most recent polls.
The bar chart depicts the average of the six most recent polls.

Britain is voting on its EU membership for the second time since becoming a member of then-European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The first such referendum was held in 1975, after the Labour party promised such a vote in its election campaign.

Being rejected membership twice in the last decade, Britain opted to stay in the EEC.

According to the Leave camp, much has changed in the last four decades. The pro-Brexit camp's main complaint is that the British voice is not heard in the EU, hence it is time to leave the union.

In the wake of World War II, a community for trade and economic cooperation was formed among European countries based on the wisdom that countries that trade with each other are less likey to go to war.

The concept of the European bloc has evolved dramatically over the last six decades. Member states have since joined together to form a “single market” which allows citizens to move across the continent freely.

The EU currently consists of 28 countries. The body has its own parliament and laws, plus a currency that adopted 19 member states.

Talking points

1) Economy

Britain's imports from EU states exceed its exports, enjoying tariff-free trade, and is likely to face an economic shock if it opts to break away on Thursday.

Employers from the banking sector to the automobile industry have warned about unemployment in non-EU UK.

This is the strongest argument of the Remain camp.

Moreover, the pound is expected to tumble right after the referendum if Britain decides to leave, as per Bloomberg’s economists. They further predict that Britain’s currency will fall to the levels last seen 30 years ago.

The “Out” campaign, however, says a fall in the value of the pound would boost exports and has found support among some financial specialists and small businesses. It has urged voters to ignore what it calls the “establishment” which it says has the most to lose from Brexit.

2) Immigration

The pro-Brexit official verdict on EU’s immigration rules is “immoral, expensive and out of control." They want to limit their community to the British shores, say analysts.

However, for the anti-Brexit campaigners the concept of community stretches beyond a geographical region.

The Leave camp's strongest argument is EU’s "unfair" immigration regime, which makes it easier for low-skilled workers from member states to settle in the UK than their counterparts from other countries.
40pc of the EU's new members come to the UK looking for jobs. — Quartz
40pc of the EU's new members come to the UK looking for jobs. — Quartz

The Leave camp argues higher immigration pushes down wages by increasing the supply of workers, leaving fewer opportunities for British citizens. With the expansion of the bloc to the eastern countries — less developed nations — a large influx of jobseekers is anticipated.

UK’s lowest unemployment rate in a decade has already attracted immigrants from the Baltics, Poland and Bulgaria.

If Britain chooses to leave, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has suggested Scotland may call a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. Even with a vote to stay, Cameron could struggle to repair the rifts in his party and hold on to his job.

Foreign leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, have called on Britain to remain in the EU, a message supported by global financial organisations, many company bosses and central bankers.

The killing of lawmaker Jo Cox last week as she prepared to offer advice to those who elected her in northern England, prompted a pause in the campaign and soul-searching about its tone. Her husband said she had been concerned about the coarsening of political dialogue.

The man charged with her murder, asked his name in a London court, responded: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

Opinion polls have depicted a deeply divided nation, with big differences between older and younger voters, and between pro-EU London and Scotland, and eurosceptic Middle England.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the focus on immigration to Britain, which has increased significantly in recent years, could worsen divisions in a country where the gap between rich and poor has also been widening.