Should we stay or should we go? A beginner’s cheat sheet to the EU referendum

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Moya Crockett
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This Thursday, the UK will take to the polls to decide whether to leave or remain in the EU. Whatever the outcome, it will mark the end of one of the most bitterly-fought and baffling political campaigns in modern British history. 

Most people are familiar with the idea that politicians can be, to borrow an infamous Thatcher-era phrase, "economical with the truth". But the rival campaigns in the run-up to the EU Referendum have been remarkable for the frequency and intensity with which their arguments - presented always as cold, hard facts - have totally contradicted one another.

Some say the UK's economy will be fine if we leave the EU; far more seem to think that it will be a disaster. Vote In campaigners argue that Britain's security will be threatened without EU support; Brexiteers insist we are more at risk while our borders are "open". It's enough to make your head feel like it's been put through a blender.

But judgement day will soon be here. So if you're still feeling confused about how to vote on Thursday, we've put together a quick refresher guide to the key arguments for both Leave and Remain. We hope it helps to cut through the noise.

Oh, and one last thing. While the Stylist team would never tell our readers which way to vote, we do encourage you to get down to the polling booth. We are now living in an age where dedicated, principled women like Jo Cox are murdered in the street; where female MPs are bombarded with rape threats and death threats via social media; where female voices are conspicuously absent from the most important debate of a generation. Whether you decide you want to Leave or Remain, you have a democratic voice. The time has come to use it.

Images: iStock, Rex Features

  • Reasons to Leave: The Economy

    Vote Leave campaigners claim that the UK currently gives the EU £350 million a week

    We do give the EU £350 million a week, but we also get a rebate. Once that’s taken off, the actual figure is more like £250 million. And of the money we pay in, around £85 million a week is fed directly back into the UK.

    Nevertheless, that’s still a lot of money spent on EU membership.

    Eurosceptics argue that leaving would give the UK more control of its own economy, help small businesses thrive, and allow Britain to engage in free trade deals with countries like India, China and Australia.

  • Reasons to Stay: The Economy

    In 2015, the UK spent about £130 per person on EU membership, but the Remain camp thinks it’s worth it for the money we make in increased trade, investment, jobs, growth and lower prices.

    George Osborne’s pro-Europe warnings of financial Armageddon in the event of Brexit have often been dismissed as fear-mongering. However, in a poll of more than 600 of the UK’s top economists, nearly nine out of 10 said they thought that leaving the EU would have negative consequences for the UK economy.

  • Reasons to Leave: Migration

    Net migration to the UK reached a near-record 330,000 in 2015, of which 49.5 per cent came from the EU, according to the Office of National Statistics.

    Supporters argue that a Brexit would allow the UK to impose visa requirements on migrants from Europe, cutting net migration to the UK by up to 100,000 a year.

    They claim this would allow Britain to take in fewer “unskilled” workers from the EU, reducing pressure on the UK’s finances.

    However, Brexit campaigners say they would accept skilled workers from around the world who are suitable for specific jobs (e.g. accountants or doctors), via an Australian-style points-based immigration system

  • Reasons to Stay: Migration

    You might just straight-up view immigration as a positive thing – and one that works both ways. One of the EU’s key principles is the free movement of labour, which means that if we want to live and work in another country in Europe, we can.

    Your mate who just moved to Berlin with minimal stress? Yep, that’s thanks to the EU. And some Remain campaigners argue that a vote to leave would make illegal immigrants of the two million UK citizens currently working abroad in the EU.

    Added to that is studies that point to the positive economic impact of UK immigration from the EU. 

    That said, even if you’re not a fan of freedom of movement, Brexit isn't necessarily the solution. If it votes to leave, the UK may have to accept the principle of free movement as the ‘cost’ of establishing a free trade agreement with European markets. (That’s what non-EU states Norway and Switzerland had to do, and it's not clear why the EU would take a different stance on the UK, were we to exit the EU.)

  • Reasons to Leave: Women's Rights

    The infamous tampon tax was part of an EU ruling on ‘luxury’ goods required to have VAT added. Despite the British government agreeing a deal to scrap the tax earlier this year, the Leave campaign highlights that this may not actually happen until 2017 - and it could be vetoed by any EU member state after the referendum, meaning British women could still be at risk of paying it if we  vote to stay. 

    It also looks unlikely that leaving the EU would prompt the government to immediately backtrack on established EU laws protecting women’s rights - plus Leave campaigners point to instances where the fight for equality in the UK, particularly in the workplace, pre-dated the EU anyway

    And Conservative employment minister Priti Patel (right) alluded to feminism when she said: “Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes did not fight to have the right to vote on who governs them, only to then see those decisions surrendered to the EU’s undemocratic institutions and political elite.”

  • Reasons to Stay: Women's Rights

    Many UK laws protecting the rights of women at work are a direct result of EU directives. Labour’s Harriet Harman (right) has claimed that Brexit would “derail the fight for women’s rights”, pointing out that “EU muscle” was key to forcing through several feminist reforms.

    Although the UK has passed many gender-related decisions through Parliament since joining the EU in 1973, European membership has forced these decisions to be more progressive.

    The EU helped remove the ability to fire a pregnant woman with impunity in the 1990s, and also helped us to extend statutory maternity leave to all women – the UK’s own ruling had been just to women who had been in a job two years or more – as well as granting shared paternity leave between parents so that mothers don’t have to necessarily shoulder the burden of childcare.

    In 1984 the European Commission forced the UK government to introduce the principle of “equal pay for equal work”. Without that change, women were only entitled to equal pay if they did exactly the same job as a man, not just one that required a similar level of skill and responsibility. 

    Similarly, the EU came down harder on discrimination in work – with laws which address racial, sexuality and disability discrimination, as well as gender discrimination – than the UK, forcing a cap on compensation for discrimination to be removed in 1993

    Again though, it's likely that most EU laws relating to employment and the workplace would remain in place even with a UK vote to leave, for a number of reasons

  • Reasons to Leave: Housing

    When it comes to the housing crisis, Vote Leave-ers point the finger of blame firmly at immigration. Leave campaigner Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons, has suggested that the government will be able to control European immigration if we leave the EU, making it easier to get a foothold on the housing ladder and find affordable rents.

    However, a report from the London School of Economics found that a lack of social housing, an increase in life expectancy, and an increased number of smaller households (as more people live alone) all contribute more to housing demand than net migration figures. 

  • Reasons to Stay: Housing

    Remain campaigners including George Osborne and the Governor of the Bank of England have suggested that house prices will plummet in the event of a Brexit - which on the face of it, doesn't seem like a bad thing for Generation Rent, forever struggling to get on the property ladder.

    But it’s worth remembering that a major drop in prices wouldn't solve the housing crisis overall. For that, we need more homes – and a group of the UK’s biggest housebuilders has said that Brexit would make it harder and more expensive to build houses

  • Reasons to Leave: Education

    Eurosceptics argue that British universities wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on funding from European bodies if we left the EU – because the UK government would have more money to spend on them. 

    And when a recent survey found that almost half of would-be international students from the EU said they’d be less inclined to apply to a British university in the case of Brexit, a Vote Leave spokeswoman argued that that could be seen as a positive thing. 

    "The most important thing is to ensure that there are sufficient places for our young people [within Britain]," she said.

  • Reasons to Stay: Education

    The director-general of the Russell Group has warned that £500m worth of grants could be at risk if we leave the EU. British higher education providers get around 16 per cent of their research income, and at least 2.6 per cent of their total income, from the EU.  

    As an increasing number of Brits go onto higher education – and as the government attempts to reduce the amount of money it gives to universities – that research funding is increasingly important.

    There is also concern that a  Brexit would drive high-achieving EU students away from the UK

  • Reasons to leave: Security

    Like most sects of society, the Brexit campaign has divided many within the military, security and defence establishments.

    The main concern for Leave voters is the supposed pressure from EU members states, particularly Germany and Belgium, for Britain to contribute towards a central EU Army.

    Along with sucking a huge chunk of money out of the UK defence budget, the likelihood is that a ‘superstate army’ would also mean military resources are funnelled out of Britain, thereby weakening our independent forces.

    Establishing an EU Army could also undermine the work and power of NATO, says Field Marshal Lord Charles Guthrie, former Chief of Defence Staff, which could damage the UK’s ‘special relationship’ and sharing of defence intelligence with America.

  • Reasons to stay: Security

    Former heads of MI5 and MI6, plus many well-respected senior military officers, agree that leaving the EU will be detrimental to Britain’s security.

    Russian aggression, instability in the Middle East and acts of terror by extremists including the so-called Islamic State, have been cited as common threats to the West, which officials say are better confronted by united EU allies

    David Cameron has been accused of scaremongering with his assertions that by leaving the EU, Britain will be weakening its defences against such threats.

    However it is a concern shared by NATO chiefs, who say that a Brexit would "lead to a loss of British influence, undermine NATO and give succour to the West’s enemies."

    A Ministry of Defence spokesman has dismisssed the prospect of a combined EU army which would draw heavily on British funds and resources, saying: “We will never be part of an EU army. We retain a veto on all defence matters in the EU and we will oppose any measures which would undermine member states' military forces.”

  • Reasons to leave: World Status

    Leave campaigners believe that Britain is a strong enough entity to remain a major player on the international stage outside of the EU, thanks to its membership of the UN Security Council, G7 and NATO, along with the fact that, for the moment at least, the UK economy is the fifth largest in the world.

    Boris Johnson claims that a Leave vote would benefit London in particular as a world business capital, opening up the opportunity for it to become a meeting place for global deal-making.

    Writing in the Evening Standard, he says: “If you want our great capital to be genuinely open to the world — rather than locked in and diminished by a failing EU system — then go global, vote Leave, and take back control.” 

    Eurosceptics, including Johnson, also believe the UK will have a bigger voice outside of the EU. They argue we will be free to comment and hold a more independent position on world events, without needing to respect the position of EU member states.

    Leave  campaigners deny the claim that a Brexit vote would push Scotland out of the UK.

  • Reasons to stay: World Status

    Remain campaigners are concerned that by leaving the EU, Britain will not only have less influence over European policy and trade, but that the special relationship with America may also be weakened.

    Barack Obama himself noted that if it votes to leave, "the UK is going to be at the back of the queue" when it comes to trade agreements.  Hillary Clinton clarified her support for Remain in a statement issued by her senior policy advisor, who said: “[Clinton] has always valued a strong United Kingdom in a strong EU. And she values a strong British voice in the EU.”

    It’s not just America; Chinese leaders have made it clear that they hope to see their huge investments in UK businesses protected by a Remain vote, while India, Japan and Australia have also made it clear that they consider their relationship with the UK as a "gateway to the continent".

    Should a Brexit trigger more EU member states to leave, the UK could also become unpopular on the world stage, with blame for the breakup landing at our door.

    One study has found that London’s own status as a hub for non-EU companies that are trying to penetrate the EU market will also deteriorate with an out vote, as the city will be seen to be out of the loop.

  • Reasons to leave: Human Rights

    Leave campaigners reject the jurisdiction that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) currently has over EU member states, arguing that Britain should be able to put laws in place relating to human rights and liberties without needing the approval of the ECJ.

    The overriding concern here is that it erodes Britain’s sovereignty and democracy.

    Leaving the EU would also mean that some businesses will be able to free themselves of what is claimed by some to be unnecessary "red tape" legislation that is currently mandatory as a part of EU rules on workers' rights.

  • Reasons to stay: Human Rights

    Many of the human rights we have come to expect as standard, including a large amount of workers' rights, are a result of EU legislation, which the Remain campaign is keen to protect.

    Jeremy Corbyn has asserted that voting Remain will protect key worker’s rights including paid holiday, anti-discrimination legislation plus maternity and paternity leave.

    The Charter of Fundamental Rights, created in 2000, lists 54 rights that we have in Britain by virtue of EU membership, which include the right to life, human dignity and freedom from torture, plus the prohibition of slavery, forced labour and human cloning. Privacy, education, marriage and family rights, protection of personal data, the right to strike, protection from unfair dismissal, and freedom of the arts and sciences are also included, along with equality rights.

    While Britain does currently have some negotiating power on the charter and can implement its own laws, Remain voters argue that being able to appeal controversial decisions made by a UK Government via the European Court of Human Rights, gives us greater security and protection from legislation that might at some stage infringe our rights.