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The campaign has kicked off for one of Britain’s most momentous votes in at least a generation — the June 23 referendum on whether the country should leave the EU.
Many voters and interested onlookers in Britain and beyond have questions about what Brexit means — and what consequences it would have. Here the FT endeavours to answer some of the queries on Google Trends about the EU referendum and Britain’s relationship with the bloc.
1) What is Brexit?
Brexit is a shorthand way of referring to a possible British exit from the EU. It is a word that owes something to the term “Grexit”, which has been used for several years to refer to the possibility that Greece might leave the eurozone.
As serious as the Greek debt crisis is, the prospect that one of the EU’s biggest and richest economies would leave the bloc is far more momentous.
2) When is the EU referendum?
David Cameron, UK prime minister, has set the date for Thursday, June 23.
Under law, he had to give a 16-week notice of a referendum. British officials were unenthusiastic about delaying a vote — a summer migration crisis could further damage the image of the EU.
3) What would happen if we left the EU?
As a hypothetical event, Brexit still largely lacks definition. Some EU critics say it would be possible to leave the bloc and scrap free movement of people while retaining access to the single market.
Their opponents say such a suggestion is fanciful in the extreme, adding that a UK outside the EU could either choose to follow Norway, which pays into the EU budget and implements the bloc’s regulations, or opt for a much more distant relationship, with trade governed by World Trade Organisation rules.
The impact of Brexit will be determined by at least two variables, neither of which is remotely settled: what kind of post-membership relationship with the EU the UK wants, and whether the bloc is willing to agree. A Norway-style coexistence might be much less of a change than many expect; a bigger rift could have profound consequences for both Britain and the EU itself.
4) What are economists’ views on Brexit?
Economists overwhelmingly believe that leaving the EU is bad for the country’s economic prospects. In the FT’s annual poll of more than 100 leading thinkers, not one thought a vote for Brexit would enhance UK growth in 2016.
As for the medium term prospects of the country, almost three-quarters of the economists polled thought leaving the EU would damage Britain’s outlook; just 8 per cent thought the country would benefit from leaving. Less than 20 per cent thought it would make little difference.
5) Who can vote in the UK’s EU referendum?
You are eligible to vote if you are a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen over the age of 18 and you are resident in the UK. You may also vote if you are a UK national who has lived overseas for less than 15 years.
6) Why should we stay in the EU?
Speaking to the BBC in the aftermath of the February negotiations on recalibrating Britain’s membership, Mr Cameron outlined the basics of his case. “We are out of the things we don’t want to be in: the euro; we are out of the no borders agreement; we’re now out of ever-closer union. We keep the full access and the say over the single market, and the political co-operation to keep the people of our country safe.”
He warned of seven years of uncertainty if Britain chose to leave — because of the time it would take to negotiate an exit: “And at the end of that process you still can’t be certain that our businesses will have full access to the market, so it could cost jobs.”
7) Why should we leave the EU?
Michael Gove, Britain’s justice secretary, set out his argument for Brexit as soon as the June 23 referendum was announced. “Our membership of the EU prevents us being able to change huge swaths of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives,” he said.
He added that the bloc had become a failure: “The euro has created economic misery for Europe’s poorest people. EU regulation has entrenched mass unemployment. EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders. Far from providing security in an uncertain world, the EU’s policies have become a source of instability and insecurity.”
8) What are the arguments for and against Brexit?
John Redwood, the Conservative former cabinet minister, says that “the referendum should not primarily be about trade and business regulation. It is about our democracy. Do we wish to be an independent, self-governing country or not?”
Mr Redwood suggests the UK could also make more tangible gains: “Both the budget deficit and the current account deficit would fall by 20 per cent, thanks to cancelled EU contributions which we do not get back. The UK could again make the laws it wishes, reclaim control of its migration and borders policy, and regain its own representation on important international councils such as the World Trade Organisation and at climate change conferences.”
Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics commentator, maintains that “the UK, with less than 1 per cent of the world’s population and less than 3 per cent of its output, can achieve what it wants more effectively from within the European club”.
He adds that since “voters in the referendum will not know what the objectives of the new negotiations [to break up with the EU] might be and how long they will last . . . a ‘No’ vote would be a leap into the abyss”.
9) When did the UK join the EU?
The UK joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU, on January 1, 1973, so realising a long-held ambition of Edward Heath, the prime minister who had negotiated the country’s entry.
Heath had been the country’s chief negotiator when France’s then-president Charles de Gaulle first vetoed British entry in 1963. De Gaulle vetoed the UK again but fell from power in 1969, so clearing the way for a renewed British bid.
UK’s EU Referendum: How people would vote
For a more detailed summary of opinion polling visit the FT’s Brexit poll tracker page
10) What is the European Union?
The EU is one of a kind — a bloc of 28 countries that is not a state but far more than just a free-trading zone. With GDP of more than $18,000bn and a population of more than 500m, it is the biggest economy in the world.
Over more than half a century a succession of treaties has created and empowered bodies such as the European Commission, the European parliament, the European Court of Justice and latter-day innovations such as the president of the European Council.
Member states remain the most powerful actors within the EU — with Angela Merkel, German chancellor, the bloc’s most powerful leader. But the union remains an exercise in shared sovereignty — one of the most contentious issues in the British debate.
Brexit? In or Out
The economic consequences of Brexit
Three very different outcomes of a British vote to leave the EU
What would Brexit mean for the City of London?
There is a clear split over how a vote to leave would shape the capital’s future as a financial centre
What the City stands to lose and gain from Brexit
Sectors such as foreign exchange trading have boomed during EU years
What has the EU done for the UK?
The long-running debate over the economic benefits of membership remains unresolved