Why British Conservatives Are Divided About Leaving the EU

Analysis: Brits face a difficult June decision about leaving Europe

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons / AP
March 22, 2016

Speaking at a Washington Free Beacon luncheon earlier this week, Liam Fox, a British Conservative MP and former UK Defense Secretary, offered three rationales for leaving the European Union: first, the need to reassert the British Parliament’s sovereignty; second, the need to reestablish control over Britain’s borders; third, the need to recover British authority over its own tax revenue.

Fox’s arguments are not merely academic. On June 23, Britons will vote in a referendum about whether to remain in or leave the EU. The vote is likely to be a close-run thing. The latest polls show that the ‘in’ campaign has a roughly 3 percent lead over the ‘out’ or ‘Brexit’ campaign, on average. Yet the polls also show that the out campaign is rapidly closing the gap. Brexit advocates believe they can win the referendum, and say their cause benefits from increasing concern about pressure from immigrants on government services and job opportunities.

Still, the debate over Britain’s future is fueling tension within the Conservative Party. Many British conservatives cannot abide the continuation of European supremacy over British law. While Parliament still makes British laws, it is under a legal obligation to ensure that anything it passes conforms to EU diktats. European courts can require Parliament to change the law—and they often do so.

Another issue for these conservatives is the EU bureaucracy and its extraordinary centralized power. These MPs resent the fact that many decisions on migration, spending, and regulations are made by the EU rather than by British politicians. During the Free Beacon luncheon, Fox emphasized the specific concern of migration. He noted that once an immigrant to Europe receives citizenship in their host nation, they are free to travel anywhere on the continent. The free movement of people, as a principle, lies at the center of EU policy. As a consequence, a large number of conservative MPs worry that some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who are now in Europe may one day relocate to Britain. Their concern is partly motivated by concerns over terrorism, but also by the belief that migrants impose excessive demands on UK government services.

After all, the UK—unlike the United States—provides universal public health care services and extremely robust welfare services, for which immigrants are generally eligible. Interestingly, this debate bears strong comparisons with the rise of nationalist-identity politics in America. Consider that populist doubts over immigration are the sustaining force of Donald Trump’s campaign.

Those in the Conservative Party who oppose Brexit believe that the benefits of EU membership far outweigh the costs. They point to British access to and influence in the EU’s trade zone. They also suggest that the combined power that the EU affords Britain in international affairs allows the kingdom to punch above its weight. The in campaign points to business groups who warn that leaving the EU would risk tens of billions of pounds for the economy. A strong majority of UK business interests—especially those that operate in EU nations—are concerned by the growing prospect of Brexit. Economic concerns are the chief reasons why British Prime Minister David Cameron supports staying in the EU. Of course, it’s also true that the EU is home to nations with inefficient economies that rely on American capitalism to improve the lives of their citizens. Even if Britain stays in, these structural concerns will have to be addressed.

Another factor that adds to the referendum’s unpredictability is terrorism. The threat of terrorist attacks in Europe—which seem more present after the attacks in Brussels and Paris—means that British voters are skeptical of an EU that prides itself on easy travel across national borders. Fox noted that if further terrorist attacks occur prior to the vote, yet-undecided voters may consider national security as a primary concern beyond economics or other issues. These fears are understandably a powerful motivation for voters.

The referendum result on June 23 will be critical for the UK but will also have ramifications beyond its shores. It will be instrumental in shaping the future of the U.S.-UK relationship. While many U.S. officials would prefer Britain stay in the EU to influence EU foreign policy in the interest of the United States, others disagree. Fox believes that a Brexit would actually serve U.S.-UK relations. He argues that Britain would be free to support U.S. foreign policy absent the constraints of more skeptical nations like France and Germany.

Published under: European Union