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UK referendum: At least we get a vote

Nick Robinson, a UK journalist for the BBC, reported: “Facts. We want facts. Please give us the facts. That is the cry I hear again and again from people who feel assailed by claim and counter-claim about what it will mean if we vote to leave or remain in the EU.”

I have presented at referendum events and had numerous conversations with colleagues, family members and strangers. It’s the same cry I hear too.

The quality of the debate from both sides remains low, and that’s just for us in the UK. Spare a thought for those outside the UK’s borders who are impacted by the referendum result but for whom the abysmal UK debate is irrelevant.

Other EU countries

I went to an excellent event at the Royal Bank of Scotland. They’ve assessed the impact on other EU countries of a UK vote to leave. It’s based on ten criteria ranging from foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports, to UK bank links.

Their analysis found that countries in Eastern Europe were generally not so exposed to a UK exit. Cyprus and Greece would feel the greatest impact. But The Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden would also be badly affected by virtue of a combination of: export exposure to the UK; bank links; FDI exposure; and national pessimism towards the EU that might be further encouraged by a vote to leave.

These issues matter. In the event of a vote to leave, the continuing ease and attractiveness of investment, funds transfer and common trading standards will be dependent on the negotiated exit deal and the speed and extent that UK law deals with 44 years of EU influence. It is by no means guaranteed that everything will continue as before.

Ireland of course has strong financial services and trading links with the UK. But the biggest impact on Ireland could be the reinstatement of border controls with Northern Ireland, which is an emotive symbol for all sides and could represent a major setback to the achievements stemming from the Good Friday Agreement.

The EU as an institution

The EU is facing issues that may intensify or become harder to solve without the UK’s expertise and resources. These issues include:

  • migration and immigration
  • reliable access to sustainable affordable energy
  • conflicts on the EU’s borders
  • the future of the EU itself
  • growth and jobs
  • security, fighting terrorism and organised crime/money laundering.

The EU’s ability to deal with these issues could be diluted if its attention and energy is diverted to negotiating a UK exit agreement. The UK’s net contribution to the EU’s budget is approximately £10bn. How will that shortfall be made up and who pays for it? This will form a critical element of the negotiated exit agreement and could significantly affect the financial resources available to the EU.

Non-euro countries see the UK as a useful counterbalance to the Franco-German axis. An EU without the UK would leave 27 member states dominated by Eurozone countries, leaving countries like Poland and Sweden in the minority. The balance of the European Parliament would shift to the left when UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) leave, but the Eurosceptic representation would also be diluted with the loss of UKIP MEPs (which might be temporary if the UK leaving encourages greater Eurosceptic voting in the next European elections).

Eurosceptic movements in France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Denmark and elsewhere have been boosted just by the fact of a UK referendum. Whether or not the UK votes to leave, the EU Council agreement in February, often referred to as the UK’s renegotiation, could yet encourage other member states to seek their own special treatment, vetoes or carve outs. The commitment secured by David Cameron to abandon the principle of an ‘ever closer union’ could yet be the most influential legacy of the EU membership debate.

Does the US care?

Hell yeah. The principles behind the US decision to join the allied forces in 1940s Europe substantially remain behind President Obama’s desire to see the UK remain part of the EU. A united Europe remains a critical pillar of their vision for geo-political security and structures to combat terrorism, organised crime and money laundering. I have also heard it said that the US believes it has far greater influence with and/or over the UK government than it does say with France or Germany. The inference being that it allows them some influence over EU policy.

Nevertheless, during his April visit to the UK President Obama addressed trade as a primary reason for the US wanting the UK to remain. The US conducts more trade with the EU than any other region. In 2015, US exports of goods and services to the EU were $490m, of which $119m was to the UK. Compare that to $162m from the US to China, $338m to Canada, and $267m to Mexico. Aggregate US trade to and from the EU was $1.1tr where the UK would rank sixth behind Mexico then Canada, China, Japan and the Germany.[1] 

President Obama and Chancellor Merkel recently announced that they would renew efforts to conclude the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) by the end of 2016. TTIP would target reduced trade barriers in a market of 800 million people and many billions in trade flows and foreign direct investment.

UK residents in non UK EU countries

There are two million UK residents in other EU countries. Their rights will probably remain unchanged whatever the referendum result, but their lives will be impacted. People looking to leave the UK for other EU countries will almost certainly face stricter rules to move to their destination country. And it will likely impact those seeking temporary residence. Grant Thornton member firms make common use of two year secondments which benefit both the individual and the firm. That may not be so easy if the UK exits.

UK residents abroad generally get to vote in the referendum, but not if they have been resident overseas for more than 15 years. At the time of writing, a judicial review is underway to decide whether the 15 year rule will be removed.

UK under 18’s and their children

According to Votes at 16, there are more than 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds in the UK, who will likely be voters at the next general election, and possibly at a future referendum on a proposed deal to leave the EU.[2] Whatever your view on remain or leave, more than any general election the referendum result will undoubtedly shape the UK that your children and their children will grow up in. I hope they like and benefit from what we elders decide on their behalf.

At least we get a vote

Many people are migrating to the EU from places where democracy and the right to vote are either not available or cannot be taken for granted. Millions of people – who have no influence over the outcome - will be affected by the referendum result. 23 June 2016 is the most important day for the UK economy since the last and first 1975 UK referendum on its membership of the EU. Those who are entitled to vote should accept the responsibility and tick a box on 23 June. At least we get a vote.

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[1] The US Department of Commerce –


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