Britain Ponders a Divorce: Six Storylines to Watch in the British EU Referendum

By David Wemer

British Prime Minister David Cameron has now announced a June 23rd date for a referendum on the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union. A decades-long feud over Britain's place in Europe now relies on a short five-month campaign between "Remain" and "Leave." Here are six key storylines to watch:

David Cameron's Tightrope Walk

Cameron stunned political observers when he turned what looked like a deadlocked general election into a landslide win for his Conservative Party in May 2015. His victory, however, was not due to winning seats from his traditional Labour Party rivals, but rather by simultaneously holding off the rising far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) and taking seats from the center-right Liberal Democrats. Cameron's decision to support the "Remain" campaign in this referendum can be viewed as an attempt to retain the support of the former Liberal Democratic voters, who historically have been very pro-Europe. Should Cameron and "Remain" be successful, however, it is likely that UKIP will set its sights solely on Cameron, especially if the margin is close. Cameron's support of "Remain" has also exposed a huge fault line within the Conservative Party, where London Mayor Boris Johnson, Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, and 126 current Conservative Members of Parliament support "Leave." Will Cameron be able to hold his party together, while also holding back UKIP and the Liberal Democrats? Less than a year after his most impressive electoral victory, is Cameron's political career in danger?

The Scottish Question

There could be more than one Union at stake in this election. Scotland's First Minister and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon has already made it clear that the dramatic changes a "Brexit" would entail should trigger a second Scottish referendum on independence. Perhaps more worryingly for Cameron, Sturgeon has said she will not campaign alongside Cameron, her ideological and national nemesis, for a "Remain" vote. Despite large support for "Remain" in Scotland, Sturgeon's absence on the campaign trail could lower turnout in an area where "Remain" needs to run up the score. Will Sturgeon really stay on the sidelines if Brexit is on track for victory? Will Scots turn out in force to keep the UK in Europe?

Will the Young Show Up?

Much attention was given to the inclusion of sixteen and seventeen year-olds in the 2014 Scottish referendum, and indeed the Labour party tried to include these voters in the EU referendum, only to have their efforts stopped by the House of Commons last December. The push made sense for the pro-European Labour party, as a recent poll found nearly seventy percent of 18-24 year-olds favor remaining in the EU, while only 34 percent of 65 or older voters agreed with them. However, the same poll predicted only 53 percent turnout among 18-24 year-olds. Compounding that problem, the June 23rd referendum date falls directly in the middle of the Glastonbury music festival, which draws more than 135,000, mostly young, people. Will young Britons show up in force to keep Britain in?

The Ibiza Threat

It is still unclear what specific issues the "Remain" campaign will focus on to make their case to the British people. Cameron's deal from the European Union, which gained small concessions on welfare restrictions for migrants and a re-emphasis on member state sovereignty, is far too technical to serve as the main theme, especially compared to the emotion Eurosceptics attach to issues such as immigration and British exceptionalism. Most pro-European rhetoric has centered on the potential economic collapse triggered by leaving the European Union's single market. Pro-European voices, however, have struggled to connect this imminent threat to the British economy in a way that resonates to voters. A theme that may be picked up instead: travel. Do you enjoy holidaying in Ibiza, Prague, or Nice? Expect airline prices to go up, mobile roaming charges to increase, and to have less spending money as the pound weakens due to Brexit. While these may seem like trivial issues, such small, tangible, and immediate changes demonstrate how Brexit could meaningfully impact Britons' wallets almost overnight.

A Royal Secret Weapon

Queen Elizabeth II made an uncharacteristic foray into political dialogue last June when she warned against "division" in Europe and highlighted Britain's' "key part" in forming Europe's post-war order. The Queen made highly publicized comments hinting at her desire for a "No" vote in the 2014 Scottish referendum, so it is not unimaginable that she could make a similar gesture against Brexit. Her action could prove decisive, as an emotional plea from the popular sovereign could take much of the sting out of the "Leave" campaign's appeal to British independence and patriotism, and give "Remain" the push needed to get over the finish line.

No End in Sight

Despite all of the excitement, this may just be the first of several campaigns to rock Britain or Europe in the years to come. Should "Leave" prevail, a second Scottish referendum could be called and other EU nations could see referendums, as populist parties challenge a weakened Brussels. A "Remain" victory on the other hand, may only temporarily delay the Eurosceptic cause in Britain. The electoral choice is very clear, but the outcome for British, European, and indeed world politics may be far more uncertain.

David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.