It may now be time to seriously consider what would happen if Britain left the European Union.
For months, opinion polls indicated that Britons would vote on June 23 to remain within the 28-nation union. But recent polls have shown a lead for the “leave” camp, including one that puts it five percentage points ahead.
“Brexit,” as Britain’s potential exit from the European Union is known, would be a big deal. It could batter global markets, weigh on economic growth, alter the balance of power in Europe, and affect the United States’ relations with the Continent. President Obama took it upon himself to urge Britain to stay within the union.
Just as it would be a mistake to read much into a few polls, the recent move toward Brexit should not be dismissed out of hand.
First off, the polls may be more accurate than their critics give them credit for.
Britain’s pollsters came in for derision after the country’s general election just over a year ago. Polls before that vote overwhelmingly forecast a too-close-to-call race between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. After a solid Conservative victory, an independent commission found that the 2015 polls were probably the most inaccurate since polling began in 1945. The main cause, said the commission, was that the polls used samples of people that underrepresented Conservative voters, people who now are more likely to favor leaving the European Union. The polling companies have attempted to fix such flaws, and they performed quite well in recent contests, including the vote for London’s mayor.
True, the betting markets are predicting that there is a 72 percent chance that Britain will vote to stay in. But bettors seem less sure after the recent polls. Even though the markets also failed to predict the Conservative victory last year, there are good reasons to think that the betting markets have the Brexit decision right. Polls take a snapshot of what a sample of people think at one time. Bettors can look at the polls and also take into account other factors that can influence an election, like the strength of a campaign and the future of the economy.
Sometimes, just one issue can have a big influence on an election. Immigration may turn out to be that issue for the Brexit vote.
The “leave” campaign’s recent surge in the polls appears to have been prompted by the release of new numbers on net migration into Britain. The latest figures showed a net inflow of 333,000 people in 2015. The numbers had been riding high for months, so it was hardly a surprise. But those in favor of leaving have brandished the figure to try to damage the standing of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, who wants Britain to remain in the European Union. His opponents pointed out that he had said he was aiming for migration numbers that were far lower.
The big question now is whether concerns about immigration will be strong enough for the “out” camp to win.
From an economic perspective, Britain appears to benefit from immigration. Immigrants from Europe pay substantially more in taxes than they receive in benefits. And Britain appears to need more workers. Its unemployment rate is 5.1 percent. More revealing, the country’s employment rate, which records the proportion of people between 16 and 64 who are working, is 74.2 percent, the highest level since comparable statistics began to be tracked in 1971.
But the “leave” campaign can exploit economic insecurities that don’t show up in headline employment numbers, including any fears that Britain’s curry houses are understaffed.
Immigration may have more pull as an issue of sovereignty. Those who support Brexit believe that the European Union has taken too many powers from the British government. Britain must now abide by European Union rules that allow the union’s citizens freedom of movement across the region. This generally prevents Britain from placing restrictions on legal immigration from nations in the European Union.
By coming out of the union, it would regain that power. And taking that back might seem particularly important to those voters who fear that Britain will have to take in large numbers of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa who have fled to Europe.
Still, the “leave” camp may just be enjoying a brief moment in the sun. The “remain” side may recapture strength as the vote gets closer, especially if the economic costs of leaving begin to seem too high to the voters. Brexit could cause stocks in British companies to plunge, and bond yields to rise. The pound is already heading lower. After leaving, Britain’s exporters might not have the same access to the hugely important European market. And over time, other businesses might relocate to countries within the European Union.
Peter Kellner, an experienced British pollster, noted on Monday that in previous referendums, voters in Britain briefly flirted with taking the country in a new direction, but ended up backing the status quo. “And while the record of past referendums does not guarantee a shift to ‘remain’ in the final days of the current campaign, it does suggest that such a shift is more likely than not,” Mr. Kellner wrote.
That is hardly the most reassuring prediction for those who want Britain to stay in the European Union. But it may be all they have to cling to in the next two and a half weeks.
(By Peter Eavis http://www.nytimes.com)