As the UK’s EU Referendum Draws Closer, Polarisation Increases

The younger generation, more prone to support EU membership, are less likely to vote, making the popular framing of ‘Brexit’ a bigger possibility.

Graffiti in Oxford. Credit: Rajdeep Pakanati

Graffiti in Oxford. Credit: Rajdeep Pakanati

Oxford, UK: Walking around the streets of Oxford last week, I was struck by graffiti on the wall making a chilling comparison between the Nazi’s in 1939 and the EU in 2016. As a scholar of international affairs, I was amazed at such a comparison, since the EU as is generally seen as a benevolent grouping, one which has tempered the intense competition between warring European countries and instead nurtured great cooperation. But such images are all around me during my current stay in the UK, as the country prepares for a referendum on June 23 on whether to ‘stay’ in the EU or to ‘leave’.

An observer might find this situation confusing since while the ruling Conservative Party has called for vote on whether the UK should remain in the EU or not, it is now making the case to remain. It started from the promise made in the election manifesto of the Conservative Party in 2010 and was reiterated by Prime Minister David Cameron before the 2015 elections.

The original promise reads like this:

“We will be positive members of the European Union but we are clear that there should be no further extension of the EU’s power over the UK without the British people’s consent. We will ensure that by law no future government can hand over areas of power to the EU or join the Euro without a referendum of the British people. We will work to bring back key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation to the UK.”

The intent then was to prevent the EU from encroaching on UK’s powers through the ‘ratchet clauses’ in the Lisbon Treaty of 2007 and provide a say for the British people. Yet the current vote may have taken it too far by offering an exit to the UK from the EU, thereby having the potential to unravel almost two generations of work done to be part of the EU. This time lag has meant that the original circumstances have significantly changed. This can be seen in the special status deal made by Cameron in February 2016, when other members of the EU agreed to Britain’s demand that the UK is not bound to an ‘ever closer union’ with other member states. This deal might still come to a naught if the voters call for leaving the EU.

The wording of the referendum was a major point of debate. The government first proposed the following wording: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? To be answered with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’.” This wording was felt to encourage voters to consider one response – remain – more favourably than the other. This raised concern among the voters who were arguing to leave, leading to questions on the legitimacy of the referendum itself. The Electoral Commission – which is an independent elections watchdog and regulator of party and election finance – took a closer look and called for a more neutral wording:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Remain a member of the European Union

Leave the European Union

While the Electoral Commission has made conscious efforts to ensure that no bias creeps in, the popular framing of the vote as ‘Brexit’ does not bode well for the people who intend to remain. The popular tabloid press has also unleashed massive coverage against the EU. A recent study found that of 928 articles focused on the referendum, 45% were in favor of leaving and 27% for staying (19% were categorised as “mixed or undecided” and 9% as adopting no position). The importance of framing any public matter is too important to ignore in this context.

A woman holds a Union flag umbrella in front of the Big Ben clock tower (R) and the Houses of Parliament in London. Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor/Files

A woman holds a Union flag umbrella in front of the Big Ben clock tower (R) and the Houses of Parliament in London. Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor/Files

A generational gap

The referendum can be understood by looking at the generational gap in the framing of the election wherein it has been popularly reduced to ‘Brexit’ (a portmanteau of British and exit), with the older generation calling for a restoration of British glory while the younger generation is more comfortable staying in the EU. A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found that 57% of those between 18 to 34 years of age in Britain had a favourable view of the EU, compared to 38% of people aged 50 and over.

Among the issues that dominate the EU referendum, immigration and the strain on the National Health Services (NHS) have come to dominate the immediate interests of the voters. The special deal mentioned earlier also addressed the question of restricting benefits to migrants from the EU, who are seen to have become a significant burden on the exchequer. However, the popular imagination of low-skilled workers from eastern Europe taking British jobs and reducing British wages means that the sentiment is heavily in favour of ‘leaving’.

The question of benefits is a matter that is more urgent to the older generation, who are worried about receiving pensions and health care for which they have already contributed. This group tends to be more politically conscious and vote in greater numbers as they are already registered to vote. When I asked shopkeepers, cab drivers and other working class citizens, this is a major talking point; they point to the immense welfare benefits that the UK offers which draws migrants, but in turn places immense burden, especially on the NHS.

In contrast, young people who have just come of age to vote need to be encouraged to both register and vote on referendum day. While surveys suggest that they are keen to be part of the EU, they are not very motivated to vote. In fact, it appears that two popular events – the Glastonbury music festival which falls on the referendum day and the European football championship – are expected to attract more than half a million young people, possibly ruining the chances of remaining in the EU, unless they vote by mail or apply to have someone else vote on their behalf.

The lack of interest among young people could be exacerbated by the fact that this vote is not tied to any new aspiration or even the election of a new government.

The polarised debate has created a ‘Well of Hatred’ and even claimed a victim. Labour Party MP Jo Cox was shot dead by a suspected right-winger who shouted ‘Britain first’ before shooting her. While the world looks at the EU as a model for greater integration, the project of the EU may start to unravel. If Britain votes to leave, it will reverberate very strongly in the continent where such ‘native’ sentiments are gaining strength each passing day.

Rajdeep Pakanati is Associate Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University