U.K. Voting on Future with 'Brexit'

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June 15, 2016

Voters in the United Kingdom will, on June 23, 2016, take part in a referendum on leaving the European Union. The popular term for this possibility is "Brexit," combining "Britain" and "exit."

A referendum is a nationwide vote. In the U.K., the results of a referendum are binding; so if a majority of voters say they want their country to leave the European Union, then the Government will have to comply.

It is not the first such referendum. That vote took place in 1975, a mere two years after the U.K. joined what was then the European Economic Community, formed by the Treaty of Rome. The EEC came into being in 1957, with members Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the former West Germany. The U.K. joined in 1973, along with Denmark and Ireland.

The first U.K. vote in 1975 was to stay in the EEC, which had nine members at the time. Yes votes numbered more than 17 million; No votes numbered more than 8 million; turnout was 64 percent.

Since then, the EEC has become (in 1993) the European Union, which now has 28 members and has become much more of a political entity than the EEC was.

Greece joined in 1981, and Portugal and Spain came onboard in 1986 (one year after Denmark, subsequent to gaining home rule from Denmark, left). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought, among other things, a unified Germany; also, several Eastern European countries sought membership in the EEC.

The Treaty of Maastricht in 1993 created the European Union. Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the following year.

It was another 11 years before the next expansion. Joining in 2004 were Cypress, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. Croatia became the newest EU member state in 2013.

All of those member states add up to a large political and economic entity, with its own Parliament, its own leadership, its own currency (the euro), and its own agreements with other countries around the world.

One benefit of membership in the EU is that member states already have trade agreements with other member states. If the United Kingdom leaves, then it will conceivably have to negotiate new trade deals with other countries; as well, countries not in the EU, such as the U.S., could see an opportunity to change trade agreements with the U.K. In the same way, businesses in the U.K. would have to cut through a bit more red tape in order to deal with markets in other countries; EU member states have relatively free access to markets in all other member states.

One benefit of leaving the EU is that the U.K. would no longer be responsible for contributing to EU efforts to support countries that cannot pay their debts. In recent years, several EU member states have suffered tremendous financial difficulties, in part brought on by the 2008 global financial crisis; one result of these struggles has been bailouts by other EU member states.

The EU has its own currency, the euro; the U.K., however, still has the pound as its national currency. Experts disagree on what effect a "Brexit" would have on the value of either currency. The pound has fallen of late, but that is just one of many ups and downs for the national currency in recent weeks.

Both sides of the argument have issued estimates of what would happen if the U.K. were to leave the EU. The latest analysis from the Treasury is that such a move would result in a one-year recession in the U.K. Proponents of leaving, however, say that U.K. markets would remain strong.

Another benefit of membership in the EU for everyday residents is that they can travel to other EU countries without having to endure passport issues that non-EU residents might have. U.K residents who visit other EU countries can benefit from the common currency, avoiding what previously was the hassle of exchanging currency at each new stop across a border. Of the 28 member states of the EU, 19 have the euro as their national currency.

Another benefit of leaving is that the U.K. could have more freedom to strengthen immigration requirements. Many residents of other EU member states have moved to the U.K. in recent years because of an attractive job market and because of the publicly funded National Health Service. This immigration has occurred under the terms of the EU's allowance of "free movement of people" between member states. Conceivably, a post-EU U.K. could strengthen its residency requirements. Such a move would be welcomed by one of the U.K.'s newest political parties, the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP. Founded in the same year as the European Union, UKIP has long campaigned for a "Brexit."

As for why the referendum is happening now, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he was keeping a campaign promise: In the 2015 election, Cameron vowed that, if his party were re-elected, he would schedule a referendum on "Brexit" before the end of 2017.

A vote to leave would not bring immediate withdrawal. The European Union official documents stipulate that a member state must give two years' notice of its intention to withdraw; then, 72 percent of other member states must approve a withdrawal and the European Parliament must also approve. A member state that leaves must also negotiate with other EU members as to the nature of the states' relationship going forward, in terms both military and political.

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