Brexit: Pro-EU forces gain momentum as bitter debate rages into final days
LONDON A fake naval battle on the Thames and an all-too-real daylight assassination on a West Yorkshire village street have provided fresh jolts to the nasty debate as weary Britons stumble to the finish line of a campaign that will decide whether the country stays in or leaves the European Union.
With pollsters calling Thursday’s vote too close to call, supporters of Britain’s proposed exit from the European Union the so-called Brexit took to London’s famed river last week on boats festooned with Union Jacks to draw attention to their cause.
But the stunt became a symbol of the acrimony that the referendum has sowed when pop star Bob Geldof who opposes Brexit intercepted the flotilla with his own makeshift armada. The two sides argued via loudspeaker and fired water hoses at each other.
At a packed session of Parliament on Monday, lawmakers from parties across the political spectrum recalled the life and legacy of Labor Party member Jo Cox, who was killed in a brutal attack Thursday by a suspected far-right nationalist.
While the Brexit campaign was suspended for a couple of days as a shocked nation mourned, pollsters were undecided whether the first killing of a member of Parliament in decades would affect the slight but noticeable swing toward leaving the EU.
“In her tragic death, we can come together to change our politics,” Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said during Monday’s emotional tribute. “To tolerate a little more and condemn a little less.”
A poll commissioned by the London Evening Standard newspaper showed that 53 percent of respondents were in favor of leaving the European Union and 47 percent wanted to remain. But there were also signs that the pro-EU forces had momentum in the campaign’s final days.
In news that sent the British pound up sharply in world currency markets, two polls that previously gave the edge to the Leave forces shifted over the weekend. A phone survey by Survation gave a 3-point lead to the anti-Brexit campaign, at 45 percent to 42 percent, while an online poll by YouGov gave a 1-point lead to Remain at 44 percent to 43 percent. The momentum is suggestive, but both leads fall well within the polls’ margins of error.
The divisions extend to the U.S. political landscape. President Obama has angered Brexit backers by openly campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Britain should leave in order to reassert control of its own immigration policy.
The BBC’s ongoing poll tracker finds that a significant 13 percent of voters are still undecided, making the final days of the campaign critical.
Perhaps most heartening to the Remain forces have been the betting markets, which have consistently offered strong odds that Britons in the end will elect not to take the risk of leaving the European Union. Betfair said the probability of remaining rose from 65 percent Friday to 78 percent Monday, amid heavy trading, The Associated Press reported.
Voters who have made up their minds are basing their decisions largely on the economy and immigration.
“Leaving would have a negative impact on our business,” said Shruti Pattalwar, a 25-year-old account manager who lives in Newcastle in northeast England. “I’ve looked at all the facts, and the main reason I’m voting to stay is that Brexit is terrible for the economy. It would reduce a good revenue stream that’s funding the [British National Health Service] and schools.”
Brexit backers argue that a British economy free of Brussels’ bureaucratic red tape would flourish, even if gross domestic product took a hit in the short term.
“I think the economy could benefit in the long run from being outside the EU,” said Luke Adamson, a 23-year-old London-based recruitment consultant. “Services are most of our exports, and we’re the best in the world at it. Regardless of whether we’re in the EU or not, people are going to want to do deals with us because we have the right people.”
Leaving the European Union would also give Britain more control over its borders, Mr. Adamson said.
Doubts about the European Union’s open labor immigration system is considered the strongest selling point for many Brexit voters.
“We could introduce a points system [for selecting EU immigrants] that can positively affect our economy,” Mr. Adamson said. “The EU is an idealistic thing, but on the specifics like immigration I think it comes apart. A host of other things make me think we’ll be better off outside the EU on our own.”
Despite Mr. Adamson’s sentiments, most voters in cosmopolitan London are expected to vote in favor of remaining in the European Union. In places like North Yorkshire in the north of England the Conservative Party’s heartland and “Downton Abbey” country the exit campaign is expected to make more headway.
The region’s Conservative member of Parliament, Rishi Sunak, is voting to leave. He is an example of how Brexit has split Tories despite Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s insistence that Britain remain in the European Union.
“Today, 80 percent of farming legislation affecting the U.K. is made in Europe,” Mr. Sunak wrote in a recent op-ed in the Yorkshire Post. “So baffling have the intricacies of these regulations become that British agriculture is currently fined an average of [$10,500] an hour for failing to comply with the letter of the European law.”
Others have expressed alarm about how the campaign has been carried out and the effect it has had on the public discourse. Mrs. Cox’s assassination by a mentally ill gunman with suspected ties to neo-Nazism wasn’t directly tied to Brexit, but it cast a pall over a debate that many Britons believe had already become too coarse and heated.
“The way things have been prior to the vote, it does feel like we’re almost on the verge of civil war in some ways especially on social media because everyone is safe behind their keyboards,” said Alex Bund, a 43-year-old graphic designer from Westcliff in Essex, just to the east of London. “The vitriol and anger that has poured out in the lead-up to the referendum has been horrendous.”
One of the leading voices for Brexit, U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, on Monday accused the other side of using Mrs. Cox’s assassination for political advantage.
“I think there are Remain camp supporters out there who are using this to try to give the impression that this isolated, horrific incident is somehow linked to arguments that have been made in this campaign, and, frankly, that is wrong,” Mr. Farage told LBC radio, according to the AP. “What we are seeing here is the prime minister and the Remain campaign trying to conflate the actions of one crazed individual with the motives of half of Britain who think we should get back control of our borders and do it sensibly.”
Newcastle’s Mr. Pattalwar said the bitter tenor of the debate was completely out of character.
“Political conversations and campaigns in this country are usually very mature compared to the U.S., and I’m quite proud of that,” he said. “But this campaign has been quite terrible.”
Much of the campaign has been negative and overhyped, said Vincenzo Scarpetta, a policy analyst at the independent think tank Open Europe in London. He has been fact-checking claims made by the pro- and anti-Brexit forces and finds both sides wanting.
“It’s been Project Fear versus Project Fear,” said Mr. Scarpetta. “Both sides have preferred to present the other side as risky rather than making a positive case for their own side.”
The Remain campaign said Britain faces economic uncertainty out of the European Union and has gone so far as to suggest peace in Europe is at stake. Remain supporters also warn that the vote could mean the breakup of the United Kingdom if pro-EU regions such as Scotland decide to go on their own.
Meanwhile, Leave partisans warn of unchecked levels of rising immigration, presenting economic and security threats, coupled with further integration into a Brussels-based union that longs to become an elite-run, federalized superstate.
Neither side has articulated what would come after the Brexit vote.
“I would like to have seen a debate where the Remain camp explains what role the U.K. would play in a changing Europe, because it’s undeniable that the EU is constantly changing and will continue to do so,” said Mr. Scarpetta. “What’s lacking on the Leave side is a coherent vision and what kind of relationship we should have with the EU after Brexit.”