Expect more alarmism in month before Brexit vote on EU | News | DW | 22.05.2016
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Expect more alarmism in month before Brexit vote on EU

A month before the EU referendum, many British voters are angry about the endless negative predictions by both sides. One academic told DW that the whole debate appears to have been devised to spread uncertainty.

Countries make contingency plans for all kinds of emergencies, including terrorism, financial crises and natural disasters. But, until recently, the British government had firmly stated that it would not put any system in place should voters decide on June 23 that the UK should leave the EU.

Although the Treasury finally admitted earlier this month that it was rushing to assess the risk of any possible financial market volatility in the event of a "Leave" vote, there has been little discussion of how the UK would renegotiate its place in the EU if a Brexit were to happen. Instead, the first six weeks of formal campaigning have been marked by incessant doomsday predictions from both sides of the debate.

British voters have been warned of dire financial and social implications whether the country remains in or exits the 28-member bloc - something that, many voters complain, has led to a great deal of confusion.

London houses

The latest Brexit warning is that property prices would fall

For example, there was the prediction of millions of new migrants should the UK maintain its EU membership. More recently, Finance Minister George Osborne said house prices could fall as much as 18 percent in the event of a Brexit, dealing a major blow to the British love affair with real estate.

"So long as the definition of what a Brexit will mean is unspecified, it's bound to engender uncertainty, and that allows people to speculate in any way they want," Iain Begg, a professorial research fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, told DW. Begg is part of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, which aims to impart independent research on the referendum.

Personality politics

Boris Johnson and David Cameron

Campaign rivals Boris Johnson (left) and David Cameron

More than the negative predictions, the debate has been muddied by clashes between Prime Minister David Cameron, who leads the "Remain" campaign and former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is arguing ferociously for Britain to leave. Johnson claimed that Brussels had a similar goal to that of Nazi German Chancellor Adolf Hitler: to create a superstate.

Begg said he would give little credence to the infighting or the doomsday predictions that are being made in the campaign, as any Brexit would be unlikely to take place suddenly. Instead, he said, it would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

"The exit route prescribes a two-year negotiation on how to leave and what to put in place of the existing arrangements," Begg said. At that point, he added, the UK could settle issues relating to trade, the free movement of people and social security arrangements. Everything would be "up for grabs," and EU countries could punish Britain for its decision to leave.

Nigel Farage on Brexit Bus

UKIP leader Nigel Farage on his party's Brexit battle bus

"But the more likely outcome is that the UK would negotiate a similar deal as the Swiss, Norwegians or Icelanders," Begg said, "something along the lines of the European Economic Area, which would give a fair amount of continuing access to Britons in Europe" - as well as a free-trade agreement.

The time frame could also be longer than two years. In March, former British Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell told the BBC that a Brexit could take up to 10 years to negotiate. Many academics believe that existing EU treaties would remain in place until the finalization of the Brexit.

Voters have few precedents to look to as they make up their minds. The only country to leave the European Union so far was Greenland, which took three years renegotiate its relationship with the EU after seceding in 1985.

"Greenland was a very special case because it gained greater autonomy from Denmark and simultaneously seceded from the EU," Begg said. "Greenland has a population of about 56,000 people, and its only interest (in EU negotiations) is fish." Britain, with a population of 64.1 million, is the European Union's second largest economy.

Opinion polls unreliable

London skyline

London's financial hub status could be hurt by a Brexit

With exactly a month until polling stations open, the campaign to remain in the European Union has regained a sizable lead in opinion polls, which have consistently shown contradictory predictions. On Saturday, the bookmaker William Hill cut its odds of a Brexit to 7-2, indicating just a 22 percent chance of Britain's quitting the European Union.

That could suggest that British voters are becoming increasingly afraid of voting to leave. But UK opinion polls have been wrong on several previous occasions - most recently failing to predict that Prime Minister Cameron's Conservatives would be returned to power in 2015. Begg said the Brexit vote would also be tough to call.

"Referenda are very unpredictable, and they can go awry for very strange reasons as we saw in France twice and in the Netherlands over the EU Constitutional Treaty," Begg said. "And it's very hard, once the genie is out of the bottle, for a government to put it back in."

"The fear is that something totally unexpected could arise that will suddenly swing opinion for the wrong reasons," Begg said.

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