Brace yourself: for the next four months, the news bulletins will be dominated by talk of the UK’s referendum on whether to stay or leave the European Union. And, probably on June 23, we all get to vote.
But stay with us. The referendum is arguably more important than any general election, changing Britain’s relationship with Europe and, in turn, the rest of the world.
The arguments will range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prosaic to the poetic. You’ll hear about what it means if you’ve ever aspired to work abroad, watched Netflix on holiday in Spain or hired a Polish builder. But you’ll also hear grand talk about power, sovereignty and Britain’s place in the world.
There’ll also be nonsense: scaremongering, dirty tricks, low politics. All in all, it should be a lot of fun.
Brass tacks. What are the facts?
Let’s step back to January 2013. David Cameron promised the Tories would hold a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, the now 28-country bloc of countries forged out of the Second World War. The promise was in its 2015 election manifesto, and a date was set for before 2017.
Here’s the so-called Bloomberg speech.
The plan was to slay two dragons with one mighty swipe: Nigel Farage’s insurgent Ukip, which was a real threat to the party’s share of the vote, and eurosceptic Tory MPs, a thorn in the side of successive Conservative Party leaders.
Books have been written on why, and it’s been a itch that has needed scratching for decades (according to Tories and tabloid newspapers).
But in a sentence: the EU has become bloated since its first incarnation, far outgrowing its original purpose as a trading zone and “Brussels” now has too much influence over British life.
The Tories won the election and the country was set for its first referendum on the relationship since 1975, when it was more popularly known as the Common Market.
Why the dash around Europe?
Part of the manifesto promise was to thrash out a new deal with EU member states to loosen its grip on the UK, and ensure Britain is not dragged further into a loveless relationship.
The niceties of the talks have kept political journalists in work, but perhaps the abiding image of the three-year “charm offensive” will be the awkward high-five with European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker at one of countless “crunch” summits.
What he has been trying to achieve has been placed in four “baskets”. Yes, “baskets.”
• Cutting benefits for migrants to discourage them coming to the UK.
• Cutting red tape for business.
• Exempting Britain from the EU’s founding principle of “ever closer union”.
• Introducing more protections for the nine EU countries, including Britain, that aren’t in the euro-zone.
Isn’t it “thin gruel”?
A package is still being finalised. But well before it comes out of the other end of the Brussels sausage factory, many have handed down their verdict.
“Thin gruel” is the old-fashioned phrase used by that most old-fashioned of Tory MPs, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to describe what Cameron’s deal amounts to. The backbencher summed up what most eurosceptics thought in his savaging of the proposals.
In any case, critics are convinced the whole spectacle has been stage-managed: no-one in Europe wants Britain to leave, and they’ve got their own problems to deal with, not least a migrant crisis and sluggish economies. And Cameron’s demands are not so outlandish to object beyond token grumbling.
Who is ‘In’?
Cameron himself claims to be a eurosceptic, and has made plain he will not make up his mind until the deal is done. Yet few doubt he will do anything other than signal he will support staying in, and urge members of his party and government to do the same.
Labour, bar a handful of eurosceptics, is pro-Europe (though only really since the early-1980s) even though leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the past questioned whether the structure delivers more for business than it does workers. The Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cmyru are firmly in the ‘In’ camp.
It’s Ukip’s reason for being to exit the EU. Plus, according to some estimates, as many as 150 Conservative MPs want out too.
But we aren’t voting for parties?
There will be designated “leave” and “remain” campaign groups, which will be decided by the Electoral Commission. Each side gets a £600,000 grant, and has to abide by a spending limit of £7 million.
This is currently a story within a story: there are 11 different groups vying to be one of the two official campaign organisations.
What does Europe think?
They want us to stay.
Isn’t it bigger than the “deal”?
Yes. Cameron’s “re-negotiation” will be pretty quickly sidelined, many think. The debate will then be dominated, but not limited to, a handful of reasons to stay and or go.
Reasons to stay in
Millions of jobs are linked to our EU membership, but there’s little evidence to show how many would be in jeopardy if we left.
Some of Britain’s biggest trading partners are in the EU, and more than 50% of our exports go to EU countries. Membership allows us to have a say over how trading rules are drawn up.
Travel and work
It’s easier than ever to work and travel abroad. Around 1.4 million British people live abroad in the EU. Membership makes movement around the continent simple.
The European Arrest Warrant allows criminals to be brought to justice across the EU.
The EU is the world’s biggest market and plays a big role in world trade, climate change issues, development projects and more.
Reasons to leave
Border control would be back in our hands. Many arguing attempts to control immigration into the UK will fail as long as we are in the EU.
Estimates suggest membership costs around £24m per day when rebates and other receipts are taken into account.
Laws made by the directly-elected European Parliament supersede legislation made by individual member state parliaments.
Other countries exist outside
For example, Norway, which trades with the EU without being in it, controls its own farming and fishing, rather than being bound by EU quotas.
What’s “Project Fear”?
A political device designed to scare the bejesus out of people if they vote for the other side. The best distillation of this was the Scottish independence referendum that saw fears over whether the country would lose the pound and see business flee, many think, carry the result for the preservation of the union. As we approach polling day, and especially if it goes to to wire, expect to be presented with end-of-the-world scenarios.
Both sides have already been at it.
Comedian Romesh Ranganathan, on Question Time, criticised how politicians on both sides are “cultivating a mistrust in immigrants” – both David Cameron for suggesting the Jungle refugee camp in Calais may have to shift across the channel to Calais under Brexit, and Ukip for suggesting that without quitting the EU then Britain would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Will it go to the wire?
The polling industry’s name was in the dirt after failing to call the general election. But hey. They’ll be monitored closely throughout. One of the most recent, by ComRes, has Remain on 49% and Leave on 41% – though the lead has halved in two weeks.
Received wisdom is the longer the campaign goes on the more likely the ‘Out’ campaign’s message will cut through.
Who will we see a lot of?
And other eurosceptics.
And should I care?
Yes. You have the same number of votes as David Cameron and Nigel Farage. Why should they have all the fun?