As a teacher of English in Germany, I am often asked questions from confused students about the upcoming referendum. Why is it being held, what is the likely outcome and why is Britain such a reluctant member of the European project? I've put it off long enough. Today I gave them my best answers to all their questions....
When is the big decision and what do the polls predict will be the outcome?
The referendum on whether to stay in the European Union will take place on the 23rd of June 2016. It is the second referendum Britain has taken on remaining within Europe, the first being held in June 1975. On this first occasion 67% of the electorate voted to remain within the Union. Opinion polls suggest that this year's vote will be closer, but still result in a victory for the 'remain camp'. Latest polls suggest a 10% lead for those wishing to stay.
Why are the British such reluctant Europeans?
One of the biggest, and indeed very legitimate, concerns made by the Eurosceptics is that Europe has a massive democratic deficit. In other words, it's not truly democratically accountable. People on the ground have little idea about what happens in Europe, who is representing them or how they can change that if they're not happy.
This is especially true of the British, who are totally uninterested in the European project and indeed never have been. German papers and broadcasts devote considerable time to the goings on in Brussels. Pick up a British newspaper and you'll see a lot more written about American politics than European. Unfortunately for the Brexit campaigners, this lack of interest extends to the referendum itself. Politicians and the media are much more interested in the referendum and the constitutional issues around EU membership than is the 'ordinary man on the street'. There is not much 'grassroots' excitement on either side of the argument and turnout is likely to be low.
Of course much of the problem stems from the British monolingualism that keeps us outside of the cultural and economic exchanges that are well established on the continent. Even those who make it off the island are often amongst the worst speakers of local languages. A recent InterNations survey of expats reveals that less than 50% of British expats abroad claim to be able to speak the languages of the countries they are resident in. Government attitudes to rectifying this national failing can be summed up by the relatively recent decision to lower the age at which children are compelled to learn a second language from 16 to 14.
When did Britain join the European Union?
"One of the biggest fears that keeps us from moving ahead with our lives is our difficulty in making decisions". In her famous polemic 'feel the fear and do it anyway', Susan Jeffers argues that stasis is the worst result of all and that really, every decision is a good one. Failure to commit has been the defining attitude of Britain towards Europe ever since she failed to show at the inaugural Treaty of Rome (against Winston Churchill's pleadings in the commons, incidentally).
Thanks to that and the multiple vetoes of Britain-hating Charles de Gaulle (bite the hand that fed you and all that), Britain missed the honeymoon years of the Union, when prosperity and peace seemed linked to its success - for those who were benefiting. Having watched enviously from the outside, the British got even more resentful once finally let in. Late to the party, Britain entered a club she had had no hand in shaping - more out of a sense of desperation than enthusiasm. Ever since, she's been agonising over whether she's done the right thing; itching to make a break for it.
Why is this referendum happening?
Many feel that David Cameron has put his own party's political concerns ahead of the interests of the country by calling for this referendum and risking a vote to leave (confusingly, although David Cameron's government called the referendum on EU membership, they don't want to leave. In fact, if the British people vote out, David Cameron will almost certainly resign). He might argue, and Susan Jeffers might agree with him, that this is an issue Britain needs to 'put to bed' once and for all.
But will the vote change Britain's attitude toward the EU? Will it change anything?
Will I be worse off?
There is much debate over the economic consequences of Brexit. The Chancellor of the Exchequer claimed recently that British households will be worse off by £4,300 a year out of Europe. Those campaigning for full independence predict an era of innovation and prosperity, with a rejuvenated British spirit thriving. Both claims seem pretty ridiculous.
My guess is that, in the short term, nothing is likely to change that much either way. Nobody will want to rock the boat and the British people are likely to remain uninterested and incomprehensive of the continent.
I hope Britain votes to stay in Europe. Not just because my residential status in Germany may be affected, but because I believe that it is good for Britain to stay in the game, culturally and politically. The shame is that a vote to stay is unlikely to be a ringing endorsement or really to commit Britain any further to the European project. It will be good for David Cameron and is divided conservative party, but that's about it.
Notes: The vocabulary of Brexit
The Remain camp - One side of a political contest is referred to as a camp. A military analogy. The Remain Camp wants to stay in Europe. The Leave Camp wants to leave.
Eurosceptics - Much used term to describe those who don't like Europe and want to leave. A Europhile is the opposite.
Democratic deficit - The democratic deficit is, in this case, the sense many have that Brussels is too far removed from the awareness or influence of European voters and as such is not really held to account for its actions by the democratic processes in place.
'The ordinary man on the street' - continually referenced in British Politics. Politicians are always claiming to be listening to him. Clearly they didn't this time, because he doesn't care too much either way about Europe.
A Grassroots movement - What Europe never was, according to its critics. Something that comes from the grassroots, grows organically from the people - as opposed to being imposed on them by the ruling/bureaucratic classes.