Five questions on Britons' vote of a lifetime on EU membership

Prime Minister David Cameron is making a pitch for Britons to vote in June to remain in the 28-member bloc over the objections of rivals within his ruling party. 

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks to the media in front of his home in London on Monday. Mr. Johnson threw his weight on Sunday behind the campaign to leave the European Union.

On June 23, Britons will head to the polls to vote on whether or not to stay in the European Union. By holding this referendum, Prime Minster David Cameron is fulfilling a pledge to the public he made before his Conservative Party was reelected last year. He says it may be "the most important" vote that Britons will exercise in their lifetimes. Here’s a look at why:

What's at stake in the referendum?

Britain's political and economic relationship with the rest of Europe. Skeptics argue that withdrawal would reverse immigration from EU countries, save taxpayers billions of pounds, and free Britain from burdensome regulations. Pro-Europeans counter that it would lead to economic uncertainty, cost thousands of jobs, and leave Britain more isolated internationally.

A related question is the implications for Scottish independence. Scottish voters decided against secession by a 10-point margin in 2014, but the pro-independence movement remains strong and is bound to demand another referendum on independence if English voters lead the country out of the EU.  

What would a British exit (Brexit) look like?

Should Britain opt out of the EU, it would have to establish a set of trading and institutional relationships with it. Yet what these arrangements would be – and how long they might take to negotiate – remains uncertain.

One option is to emulate Switzerland, which has established more than 120 bilateral agreements with the EU, reports The Economist. Britain could also follow Turkey’s approach and establish a customs union, or simply rely on standard World Trade Organization rules for access to European markets. Another option would be a special arrangement that ensures free trade with the EU.

What about Britain's "special status" in the EU?

After two days of intense debate in Brussels last week, Mr. Cameron struck a deal with the EU’s 27 other leaders to grant Britain “special status in Europe.” The agreement gives the UK the power to limit some EU migrants' benefits, exempts it from "ever closer" political integration, and protects the rights of Britain's currency, the pound, against the euro. 

These changes would take effect immediately if Britons vote to stay in the EU. Cameron hopes to persuade parliamentarians in his own party and the country at large that they’re enough. As a four-month political battle over Britain’s future gets underway, he has promised to campaign “with all my heart and soul” to shore up support.

What are the political battle lines? 

The latest opinion polls show that the British public is fairly evenly split on whether to leave the EU. So too is the ruling Conservative Party: As many as half of its legislators are in favor of withdrawing. Sixteen of Cameron’s cabinet members back staying in; the other six have announced that they would campaign to leave.

Among the most ardent supporters of a Brexit are members of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). The opposition Labour Party, Scottish National Party, and Liberal Democrats are all in favor of staying in.

Meanwhile, many big businesses have warned that leaving the EU – with its combined market of 500 million people – would hurt the British economy. But London Mayor Boris Johnson, a high-profile “out” supporter and prominent Conservative politician, said fears of economic catastrophe were "wildly exaggerated,” reports the Associated Press.

How is the referendum viewed overseas?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the agreement reached in Brussels a "fair compromise," reports Agence France-Presse. She, like other European leaders, is desperate to avoid a British exit for fear of it plunging the EU into deeper crisis. The bloc is already contending with a record influx of migrants, economic stagnation, and rising anti-Brussels populism. 

President Obama has said the United States would prefer Britain to remain inside the EU too. Doing so not only makes Europe stronger economically and politically, the argument goes, but it also gives Washington a stronger allied voice in European decision-making on trade and security.

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