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European Referendum: what will decide the vote?

A public debate in association with Goodenough College.

7:00pm, Tuesday 17 May 2016, Great Hall, London House, Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London, WC1N 2AB

On 23 June, the UK will vote in a referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. The decision is a momentous one, the first time British voters will have had a direct vote on membership since 1975.

The result has implications not only for the UK but for the future of the EU itself, broader European cooperation and Europe’s place in the world. But despite its importance, too often the debate seems shrill, superficial and sectarian. For example, much of the media coverage has focused on parochial personality politics rather than the big issues. Is Brexit Boris is making a play for party leadership? Will Osborne’s decision to campaign to remain jeopardise his chances of becoming Conservative leader? Should George Galloway be allowed on to a Grassroots Out platform? 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron has described a vote to leave as a ‘leap in the dark’ and Remain supporters emphasise the worst-case scenarios if the UK leaves. Critics in turn have labelled such an approach as ‘Project Fear’, devoid of a positive case for membership. But those arguing for Brexit are also indulging in whipping up fears, such as pointing to uncontrolled immigration as a threat to public services and national security.

So at a time when we should take a more serious approach, we ask a panel to discuss what should be the decisive ideas in the referendum debate, including:

Democracy and sovereignty
Many of the major EU institutions – like the European Commission and the European Court of Justice – are appointed, not elected. On the other hand, the only directly elected part of the EU, the European Parliament, has relatively little power. Is this fundamentally undemocratic or a price worth paying for European cooperation? Is it better that some issues – from the environment to working hours – are taken out of the hands of national electorates?

The economy
Everyone seems to agree that free trade within Europe has been a great economic advantage for the UK. Would the UK lose easy access to European markets if we vote to leave or is a deal to keep trade going inevitable given that we import more from other EU countries than we export? Would leaving mean greater trade with the rest of the world if the UK was freed from the EU’s common external tariff? Would escaping Brussels bureaucracy make British business more profitable? What would Brexit mean for the UK’s most valuable asset, the City of London?

The right to live and work in any member state is one of the cornerstones of the EU. Many economists would argue free movement has been beneficial to our economy, too. But many British people are worried about the numbers coming to the UK, particularly from Eastern Europe. If the UK left the EU, we could take back control of immigration – but does that necessarily mean caps on immigration?  Are issues such as control of borders a key ingredient of the debate?

Negative voting
Given the complexity of the debate, many people are trying to judge the issue based on who is representing the Leave and Remain campaigns. The loudest voice for leaving the EU has come from Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Eurosceptic Conservatives, who are disliked by many liberals and left-wingers. But does that help when a Conservative prime minister is at the forefront of the campaign to stay? Labour supports remaining in the EU, but some Labour left-wingers have argued for Brexit. Is voting against the position of politicians you dislike going to help voters at all?

Generational differences
It is widely assumed that older people are more likely to vote to Leave and younger people would vote to Remain. But is it really as simple as that?

Watch the debate




Rt Hon David Davis
Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden; former Foreign Office minister (1994–1997) and Shadow Home Secretary (2003-2008)

Simon Nixon
chief European commentator, Wall Street Journal

Vicky Pryce
board member, Centre for Economics and Business Research; former joint head, UK Government Economic Service; author, Greekonomics

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No


Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panelist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze.


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