TOPIC GUIDE: EU Referendum 2016

"The UK should leave the EU"

PUBLISHED: 10 May 2016

AUTHOR: Nadia Butt & Justine Brian

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In February 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that on June 23, the UK will vote on a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), describing it as “one of the biggest decisions in our lifetimes” [Ref: BBC News]. There are many strands to the debate about the UK’s membership of the EU including: the strength or weakness of the UK’s economy inside or outside of the ‘common market’; the issue of political sovereignty - the country’s control over its laws, borders and economy; and whether without a union of European nation states, we run the risk of a repeat of the bloody history of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For many arguing to remain in the EU, the wider consequences of a ‘Brexit’ are of concern for the EU project as a whole, with Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis claiming that, “the EU’s very existence depends on Britain staying in” [Ref: Guardian]. But those who believe that the UK should leave the EU claim the benefits of continued membership, both for the UK and European nations as a whole, are significantly outweighed by the undemocratic nature of the European Union, arguing that “the EU model is the antithesis (of democracy): centralising decision-taking in the hands of an unaccountable technocratic elite” [Ref: Spectator]. So, is the EU anti-democratic and a threat to the UK’s sovereignty? Or are our nation’s interests best served as part of the broader European project with our role in Europe allowing us to be, “part of a much bigger entity with far-reaching international influence” [Ref: Observer]?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The European project: keeping the peace
The UK joined the forerunner of the European Union, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1973, a decision later endorsed by referendum in 1975 [Ref: BBC News]. The EEC was forged in the aftermath of two world wars, and an influential argument for those who want to remain in the EU is that “the only sustained period of peace in modern European history directly coincides with the EU’s creation” [Ref: New Statesman]. The belief that the EU provides a bulwark against European nationalist antagonisms underwrites many of its advocates’ arguments. Euroscepticism, they argue, is a means to legitimate ‘populist’ right-wing politicians promoting nationalistic ideas against fellow European nations. As one commentator asserts, “together we are more than the sum of our parts” [Ref: Guardian]. But some are not convinced about the voracity of claims about European peace and stability, referencing the 1990’s war in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the recent events in Ukraine, and argue that factors outside of the EU have kept the peace, with peace within Europe becoming “fragile, as the euro unleashes competitive pressures that pit national economies against one another” [Ref: University of Cambridge]. Others speak positively of the EU as a guarantor of universal “social rights” [Ref: Left Foot Forward], with supporters suggesting that the EU’s treatment of human rights is: “second to none” [Ref: Observer].

Investment, trade and power
For those in favour of the UK’s continued membership of the EU, the combination of a common market and a transnational form of government means that, “in the political arenas like the G8 and G20, Britain has far greater heft because we are alongside other EU nations” [Ref: Evening Standard]. Moreover, they maintain that the UK reaps many benefits from being part of the world’s largest economic bloc, and through collective trade deals between the EU and other world powers - with no tariffs on imports and exports between EU members [Ref: The Week]. The economic debate is polarised – with advocates of Brexit arguing that the UK could negotiate its own trade deal with the EU, as other nations have, relieving the UK from its current responsibilities to the EU and “costly, unnecessary and undesirable” EU regulation [Ref: Telegraph]. Whilst, those who wish to remain remind us that any agreement is hypothetical, and Brexit would be taking a leap into the unknown, which might “discourage investment, especially foreign direct investment, of which Britain is the biggest net recipient in the EU” [Ref: Economist]. Much criticism of the European Union has focused on its attempts to maintain financial stability and the credibility of the euro on international markets, in the light of the 2008 Eurozone crisis [Ref: BBC News]. The Eurozone is an economic and monetary union of 17 member states, who share the common currency of the Euro under strict fiscal rules created by Eurozone leaders. Although the UK is not part of the Eurozone, some argue the political consequence of these fiscal rules highlight the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the EU more broadly. They say that Brussels can directly intervene in national economies [Ref: Guardian], such as Greece in 2015, for the benefit of a European elite who “care only about keeping their political project alive, regardless of how those who must deal with the consequences are affected.” [Ref: Salon]

A democratic deficit?
The European Parliament is an elected institution of the EU, but with much of EU legislation decided by the unelected European Commission, those in favour of Brexit argue that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy, a position outlined by a German official who said that, “the weakness of the system is …about legitimacy” [Ref: Economist]. Those critical of the EU project argue that it has, “taken decision-making away from national parliaments. On virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere”, and that it operates in, “a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives” [Ref: Telegraph], a view which is highlighted by a Pew Research poll which shows that majorities in seven European countries (the UK included) don’t think their voice counts in the EU [Ref: Pew Research]. Perhaps more fundamentally, opponents go on to highlight that the EU prohibits the UK from applying its own principles of law, and is profoundly undemocratic as a result [Ref: Telegraph], with one commentator observing that, “nothing… should ever override the right of the demos to choose who governs them and to shape through public debate the political make-up of their ruling institutions” [Ref: spiked]. Entwined with the issue of legal and democratic sovereignty, the free movement of peoples is a key topic within the discussion, with opinion divided as to whether it is good for the UK or not. Approximately 3.3 million EU nationals are currently living in the UK [Ref: BBC News], and critics of this aspect of the EU, argue that membership means that the UK cannot control migration from EU member states, and that this has created, “huge pressure on wages, the NHS and other public services” [Ref: Telegraph], whilst others counter that a shortage of skilled workers would be created by leaving the EU, as this might deter European workers from coming here. Moreover, in such an integrated, globalised world with a “network of international treaties and obligations”, supporters of the EU have questioned whether national sovereignty can ever be restored in the way that those in favour of Brexit suggest [Ref: Economist]. Notwithstanding these concerns, advocates of the UK remaining in the EU argue that despite its flaws, we should stay in, as: “The growth of euroscepticism across Europe means the elites won’t be able to bamboozle the people into agreeing more transfers of power to Brussels, as they have done in the past” [Ref: Independent]. So what are the key issues at stake with the UK’s membership of the European Union? Is a loss of national sovereignty and economic self-governance too high a price a pay? Or is it the case that: “There are no good alternatives to membership. We should stay in the EU and put our energy into reforming it” [Ref: Independent]?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Why we must save the EU

Yanis Varoufakis Guardian 5 April 2016

Leaving the EU would be a self-defeating dereliction of duty and history

Tristram Hunt New Statesman New Statesman 25 March 2016


The Brexit delusion

Economist 27 February 2016

The left wing case for leaving the EU

John King New Statesman 11 June 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The Brexit Conundrum

Maurizio Zanardi New Statesman 12 April 2016

A Brexit vote may be the only way to get real EU reform

Liam Halligan Telegraph 2 April 2016

EU Referendum Debate

Guardian 15 March 2016

Project Fear looks more like mafia blackmail

Melanie Phillips The Times 26 February 2016

How to Make a Brexit?

BBC Radio 4 5 January 2016

Can the EU keep the peace in Europe? Not a chance.

Chris Bickerton University of Cambridge 28 October 2015

A fragile rebound for the EU’s image

Pew Research 12 May 2014

Why Britain should stay in the EU

Hugo Dixon Independent 25 March 2014

The EU: should Britain be in or out?

Observer 18 January 2014

For Britain to leave the EU would be economic suicide

Tony Blair Evening Standard 9 September 2013

The Eurozone crisis explained

BBC News 19 June 2012

Four reasons Britain should stay in the EU

Left Foot Forward 12 June 2012

An ever deeper democratic deficit

Economist 24 May 2012

Is Britian still a sovereign state?

Phillip Johnston Telegraph 17 September 2009


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


EU Referendum Debate

Guardian 15 March 2016

How to Make a Brexit?

BBC Radio 4 5 January 2016

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