On June 23, British citizens will go to the polls and cast their votes on a referendum that may be one of the most important decisions in their nation’s modern history: whether or not their country should remain a member of the European Union.
Should Britain decide to pull out of the EU (or as “leave” supporters prefer to promote the option with their popular catchphrase Brexit), the repercussions for the United Kingdom could be extremely grave … or not.
Depending on who you talk to, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union could wreak havoc on the country’s entire economy, leading to the loss of up to three million jobs, jettisoning the sterling pound on a speedily downward spiral, triggering a snap recession and plunging the nation’s GDP growth up 6 percent by 2030.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (who has been publicly campaigned for staying the EC course) and his cabinet have also cautioned that a departure from the European club would translate into higher taxes and up to a 40 percent hike in inheritance tax for Britons.
Oh, yeah, and then there are the security concerns.
Europhiles warn that dropping out of the EU would leave the United Kingdom vulnerable to terrorist attacks by removing its “greatest pillar of security” at a time when Middle East stability is at its lowest and resurgent Russian nationalism and aggression are at a peak.
All of which sets a pretty scary scenario for a post-Brexit cataclysmic aftermath.
But the Europhobes insist that leaving the now 28-nation bloc after 43 years would not only have no long-term detrimental effects to the world’s fifth-largest economy, but would actually open the door for greater trade and economic growth.
Yes, the Brexiteers will tell you, that London has been bankrolling gravy-train expense accounts for a top-heavy administration of pencil pushers and do-nothings bureaucrats in Brussels, who enjoy a lack of democratic accountability and who arbitrarily oppose regulations on British firms and citizens without consulting them.
And they are right.
As one of the richer members of the European assembly, the UK is the second-largest contributor to the EU budget (right behind Germany).
The United Kingdom forked over more than $18 billion in 2015 in membership fees, and the European Union pumped only about $6 billion of that money back into Britain, which means that the British are financing the club’s poorer members.
As for the issue of trade, it may be true that 44 percent of British exports are sold to the EU, but Brexit supporters point out that most of that commercial exchange will continue — tariffs or no tariffs — regardless of how the June 23 vote goes.
Without EU membership, they point out, British exports could face an average tariff of about 2.4 percent, but the country’s current net contribution to the EU budget is equivalent to a 7 percent tariff.
They also maintain that without the EU chain around its neck, Britain will be free to negotiate new trade accords with whoever it wants, including new emerging markets such as China, India, Australia and Brazil.
While the cumbersome EU has been slow to move forward on free trade deals with the fast-growing and often-protected markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, an independent Britain could negotiate bilateral accords that would be simpler, quicker and more comprehensive than what the EU offers.
And the Exiteers also note that business is done by businessmen, not governments, so while free-trade treaties may help to facilitate commerce, they are not a prerequisite to its accomplishment.
But at the core of the Brexit movement are the issues of immigration and sovereignty.
The European Union started out as a commercial bloc and it was not until Maastricht Treaty came around in the 1990s that political unity came into question.
In general, the British were leery to relinquish their sovereignty to Brussels, and have continually opposed the EU’s march toward “an ever-closer union.”
In the eyes of the Leavers, the concept of a pan-European identity is diametrically opposed to the tradition of British nationalism and identity.
There is no doubt that xenophobia and the fear of immigrants — both as potential importers of terrorism and threats to British workers’ jobs — are also fueling support for Brexit.
The Brexit campaigners have said that without European intervention, the United Kingdom will have greater control over its borders and immigration, which in turn will provide increased national security.
Immigration to the UK in 2015 was nearly double the level in 1991, the earliest year for comparable data from the Office for National Statistics.
And a large percent of the 2015 migrants were from Iraq and Syria — counties with a history of jihadist violence.
Most of these migrants also required assimilation, education, medical and financial support, putting an added strain on the national budget.
EU liberation would mean that Britain could determine for itself how many immigrants it could afford to accept.
In the end, both sides of the Brexit debate have valid points.
The real costs and consequences for Britain — and the EU — if there is a British exit, cannot really be foreseen since there has never before been a defection from the club.
A British retreat could set a dangerous precedent for the EU for attrition by other members (think Greece and France, for starters).
Most analysts say that right now the Remain-Leave divide in Britain is about 50-50, so no one can predict what will happen on June 23.
But whatever the outcome of the vote, the results will certainly merit careful observation.