Should the United Kingdom Leave the European Union?

panelists at Brexit conference
Rivers, Eichengreen, Waters
May 17, 2016

On June 23rd, United Kingdom voters will head to the polls to decide whether to leave the European Union. At an event co-sponsored by the Anglo-American Studies Program on May 13, Richard Waters, West Coast Editor of the Financial Times, moderated a discussion on the so-called Brexit referendum between Doug Rivers, Chief Scientist and Director, YouGov PLC and Stanford Political Science Professor, and Barry Eichengreen, UC Berkeley Economics and Political Science Professor. 

When asked whether the June 23rd Brexit referendum would pass, Eichengreen said no, placing heavy stock on the betting markets that show the Brexit option having just a 20-25% chance of winning.   

Rivers, on the other hand, predicted a tight race. The most recent YouGov polls show the EU referendum intention to vote answers at 42% Remain, 40% Leave with 13% Don’t Know. He described Leave voters as less educated, those living in deindustrialized parts of the UK and people with more nativist and nationalist sentiments.  Stay voters are concentrated in Scotland, London, and other urban centers and tend to have more liberal attitudes toward immigrants. Although polling is close, Rivers anticipated that UK voters ultimately will decide to stay in the EU.  He compared the likely Brexit outcome to the vote of Scottish Independence. In the end, he argued that voters have a tendency to stick with the status quo—“the devil you know”—rather than for the risky unknown, in this case leaving the EU.

As for the consequences of Brexit, Eichengreen contended that “the UK has the best of both worlds right now, in that they have access to the Euro single market, but did not adopt the euro currency.” If the UK left the European Union, “the UK would have the best of neither world.” The UK would have to renegotiate trade agreements with the EU and if the past experiences of Norway and Iceland hold, agreements would require adoption of many of the same provisions that the Leave campaign finds problematic in the current relationship with the EU. 

A Brexit vote could also hamper the UK’s special relationship with the United States, an idea that Eichengreen described as a  “frail reed to hang the future on.” Visiting England President Obama stated that the UK is stronger as a part of the EU than standing alone. Although both Rivers and Eichengreen agreed that Obama’s entrée into the Brexit debate was heavy handed, they shared his position that an UK outside the EU would be less important geopolitically and economically to the US. 

The talk took place at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Friday, May 13 and was co-sponsored by the British Benevolent Society, the Center for British Studies, the Institute for European Studies, and the British American Business Council.