“The first issue arising in the Brexit referendum debate is immigration”

Interview with Simon Hix, Harold Laski Professor of Political Science, London School of Economics and Political Science

Bio: Simon Hix is Harold Laski Professor of Political Science, London School of Economics and Political Science, Fellow of the British Academy, ESRC Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe programme; his main areas of research and teaching are comparative democratic institutions, especially voting in parliaments and electoral system design, and politics, elections and decision-making in the European Union politics.

On February 19, after the summit of EU leaders, the British Prime Minister announced that he negotiated a deal “to give the UK special status in the EU”. The PM statement following the European Council meeting read: “Britain will be permanently out of ever closer union – never part of a European superstate. There will be tough new restrictions on access to our welfare system for EU migrants – no more something for nothing. Britain will never join the euro. And we have secured vital protections for our economy and full say over the rules of the free trade single market while remaining outside of the euro” (for a full transcript of this statement, see this link). The Prime Minister subsequently called for the referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU to take place on 23 June.

In this context, Simon Hix, Harold Laski Professor of Political Science, London School of Economics and Political Science answered a series of questions about the consequences of the deal struck by David Cameron, the arguments backed by each side, and the direction in which the public debate is going.


Q: What is the relevance of the deal recently struck by the Prime Minister David Cameron for the upcoming referendum? For the UK? For the EU? For other EU member states such as Germany?

I think the deal is probably politically more significant than it is legally significant. Legally it doesn’t make that much difference in any of the four areas covered by the deal. For example, formally not having “ever-closer union” applied to the UK has no legal meaning. In case something happens in the Eurozone, the UK can ask for a discussion in the European Council – this is also almost irrelevant. Regarding the deal on the red cards for national Parliaments, in practice it would be almost impossible to get 55% of national Parliaments to block something. And then even the emergency brake on the payment of social benefits to migrant workers seems difficult to apply. So, legally it is difficult to show that the deal has any concrete meaning.

But, I think politically and symbolically the is quite important, because it really recognizes the fact that Britain is not a full member of the EU; that it has a second tier status in the EU, and that it is not part of the general process of deeper integration in Europe. So, in that sense, the deal is politically symbolic. I have been talking a lot to colleagues in Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Madrid and they say things like “Britain is now officially on the second tier in the EU”. I think that this is politically very significant.

The difficulty then has to do with what is being put in front of the voters. Do you want to leave the EU or do you want to stay in the EU with the UK in a kind of second tier status? Most voters say “well, I was in favor of staying in the EU, but really, do I want this kind of thing?”. So it really might backfire in a negative way.


Q: The whole renegotiation process was labeled “UK in a reformed Europe”. In what way do the elements in the deal contribute to a “reformed Europe”? What happens to other elements related to “a reformed Europe” that are left untouched by the British debate?

The opt-out from “ever-closer Union” is an issue very specific to the UK, but it has consequences for the EU as a whole; as does the deal on migrant benefits.  Several other Member States might want to ask for similar things. Will Hungary ask for this kind of package? Will Denmark ask for this package? How about Sweden? And so on. So, in that sense I think the deal is significant for the EU as a whole. Is this a reformed Europe? Not really; not in the sense that Cameron intended it to be; as a more streamlined, decentralized Europe. But, it is a reformed Europe in another sense, in that the deal has solidifying the fact that there are now two tiers of EU membership.


Q: When do you think other elements that could come under the umbrella of “a reformed Union” (such as competitiveness, common security, foreign policy) will be touched by any kind of European debate? In the UK, in Romania, wherever in the EU?

It is interesting that Cameron is now making a ‘security case’ for UK membership because this is the one area where UK is not in a second tier. As part of the campaign, he is now saying: “Europe is facing a security crisis, we cannot destabilize the EU, it is in Britain’s interest that Europe is strong and united when facing the crisis in Ukraine and a threat from Russia, it is no coincidence that Putin would like us to leave the EU, because it undermines the European security, we never could have had sanctions on Russia, we never could have had a deal to open up Iran without there being a united Europe with us part of it”. So, it is interesting now that after many years of being anti-EU, when he did not mention any of these issues, Cameron is now talking about European security. A lot of people say: “you never made these points before, Mr. Cameron, you are a Eurosceptic Prime Minister and now you are pretending to be pro European”. Not surprisingly, many people do not buy these arguments from him.


Q: Which, in your assessments, will be the considerations that will weigh more in the coming debate and, finally, in the vote as such? National security, economic benefits, sovereignty, EU as enabler of/ obstacle to competitiveness, others?

Three key issues are arising in the campaign. First, of course, is immigration, and most people seem to think that if we leave the EU we can reduce the flow of immigration into Britain. That is the strongest argument that the Brexit campaign has. Even if people accept that we might have to pay some price for regaining access to the single market and we may then have to allow some free movement of labour from the EU, most people assume that if we did leave that we could negotiate some kind of break, for example, where we only accept “X” amount of EU migrants every year. So, people who really care about immigration – and these are often lower income voters – are very motivated by immigration.

The second issue is economics, and it is becoming really important in two sectors. One is the City of London. The Remain campaign is trying to make the case that the financial services industry in Britain is dependent on our access to the EU single market. There is no guarantee that London will carry on being a financial centre if we left the EU and the banks then lose access to the European financial services market. Zürich doesn’t have full access, so why would the rest of the EU give it to London? The Brexit campaign will have a very difficult time arguing against this.

The other economic argument is one about manufacturing and access to the single market. The Brexit campaigners think that we could get a free trade agreement with the EU and quick free trade deals with the US, China, Canada, Australia and so on.  But, the Remain campaigners are saying “no, this could take years, what do we do in the interim? 50% of our trade in goods and services is with the EU; we won’t have any say over the regulations of these things, we will have to accept all of the single market rules, and do not expect a quick deal to regain access”. So most people accept that the economic case for staying is stronger than the economic case for leaving.

In short, if people list immigration as the issue they most care about (for example, if they are asked “which of the following issues do you think is the most important issue facing the country?”), then they are far more likely to say they want to leave the EU. But people who list economics as their most important issue, they are far more likely to say that they want to stay in the EU.

And the third issue is “sovereignty”. A lot of people say that if we leave the EU we will regain our sovereignty, we can be free to decide our own destiny. This is a very powerful identity-type message and the Remain campaigners are finding it hard to argue against this kind of message. If someone argues against this, then people say “do you not think Britain is great?“. It may sound unpatriotic.


Q: You mentioned the situation of the City of London; and I read that the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has recently positioned himself on the Brexit side.

Yes, because after the Spring of this year, Boris is no-longer the mayor of London, so he doesn’t care about London anymore. He is now thinking about positioning himself to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and the next Prime Minister. He is making the gamble that even if we vote to stay, it will be by a small margin and that the majority of Conservative voters and the majority of Conservative MPs will actually support Leave, and he will then be able to say to Cameron “I represent the party, not you”.

Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/K1mO1RuL1VA/hqdefault.jpg

Q: You mentioned that, either way, the vote will be by a small margin, which means that the Brexit issue will be in the air forever.

There is a big uncertainty about the outcome, because we do not know what the turnout is going to be and what a lot of people are saying is that it is a lot harder to predict turnout in this kind of referendum than in a national election. Turnout could be very low among some key groups: it is likely to be very high among older voters, and older voters are disproportionally more anti-European than younger voters. What if younger voters stay home? And what if younger voters who are more pro European stay home? What happens with the lower income voters, who are naturally Labour Party supporters, but do not feel that they want to vote in a referendum which looks now like a referendum about which side of the Conservative Party you support. For example, let’s say that you are a public sector worker on a low to middle income in the north of England; you are likely to be moderately pro European, but also a bit worried about immigration, you are naturally a Labour Party supporter, but not convinced either way. If these sorts of people stay home, then I think the Leave campaign is going to win.


Q: What is the significance of the referendum debate and of its possible outcome for a country such as Romania (a new member state from Central and Eastern Europe on the Eastern frontier)?

A country like Romania was key for Cameron to get his deal done in the European Council. The Central and East European states were critical for Britain because they were most concerned about what Cameron was asking for in terms of restricting access to benefits of EU migrants. There are a lot of Romanian migrants in the UK, so that is why I think it was crucial for him to go to Romania, as well as to all the other Central and East European states.

In terms of the consequences going forward, if Britain votes to leave, you can see two types of scenarios. One, it could really destabilize the European project and it could mean a push for deeper integration amongst a European core. This scenario could have serious consequences for EU external common foreign security policy vis-à-vis Russia for example, it could have big implications on how “Atlanticist” the EU is, taking out the most “Atlanticist” member. So it has big implications for the future policy direction of the EU and for its overall stability. How is the refugees problem going to be resolved if Britain leaves? It raises big questions about the sustainability of the EU.

But there is also the second scenario: if Britain votes to leave, everybody suddenly steps back from the brink and realizes that this could be terrible. Yes, Britain leaves, but people may move very quickly to come to some new sort of architecture for Europe which has Britain inside some European security umbrella. Let’s not forget that Britain and France are the two big nuclear powers, Germany is the other big power, and these three states will still have to work together on security issues.


Q: Is there a “sceptical alignment of the British press” in the referendum debate? What is the role of the media in this process?

I don’t think that there is such thing as a “sceptical alignment” of the press. The Express, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Telegraph are the most Eurosceptic. But they seem very worried about the business interests in the City of London. The Independent is pro, The Guardian is pro, The Mirror is pro. It is interesting to see which way The Times is going to go. So, the press is divided. And, at the end of the day, I don’t think the press is going to make that much difference.


Q: How about the new media? You mentioned that one strong segment targeted by the Remain campaign is the youth, and generally the youth are more connected to the new media.

The Leave campaign has been incredibly effective with social media, because in a sense social media are good for anti-establishment messages. The mainstream establishment finds it very hard to launch social media-type messages, so social media have been used to mobilize against the establishment.


Q: As a final comment, can you give us an assessment? As of today, what will be your assessment regarding the outcome?

As of today, I think it will be 52% remain, 48% leave.


Q: What kind of event could influence this envisaged result? What could happen in order to make a bigger margin, one way or another?

If there is another Eurozone crisis with Greece and/or if the migration crisis really gets out of control again, I think the Remain campaign is finished. If we see on the TV news about protests in Greece, about new Eurozone crisis summits, a new bailout, if Greece is going to leave the Euro, all that is terrible news for the Remain campaign. The other terrible news would be pictures of borders being put up and the Schengen area collapsing, because the Leave campaign would just say “see, the EU is broken, why would we want to be part of something which is broken? The EU is dying, let’s get out now, while we can”. But, as of today, I think it will be 52% remain, 48% leave.


Professor Simon Hix was interviewed by Alina Bargaoanu, director of Convorbiri Europene.

For a comprehensive view on Professor Simon Hix’s public engagement in the referendum debate, see http://personal.lse.ac.uk/hix/ (also the source for the interview photo)

For an analysis of what the Tory manifesto (May 2015) included, what Prime Minister David Cameron asked for in his letter to the European Council President Donald Tusk (November 2015), what Donald Tusk’s draft proposals were (February 2, 2016) and was finally agreed at the end of the summit of EU leaders on February 18-19, see this article from Politico.

About the Author

Alina Bârgăoanu

Alina Bârgăoanu, profesor universitar Jean Monnet la SNSPA, decan al Facultăţii de Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice; Președinte al Consiliului de Administrație al Institutului European din România; cele mai recente lucrări: „Why Europe? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of European Integration” (2017, Peter Lang), „United by or Against Euroscepticism. An Assessment of Public Attitudes Towards the EU in the Context of the Crisis (2015, Cambridge Scholars); bursier Fulbright (2001- 2002).