A Guide to the EU Referendum for International Students

 On June 23rd, the UK will be voting – for the first time since 1975 – on whether to remain a member of the European Union or whether to leave.

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It’s a decision that is going to have huge consequences right across the board, and international students are likely to be one of the groups particularly affected. Despite the landslide victory for the “remain” side in 1975, with 67% voters choosing to stay in the EU, the issue has never really been put to bed – especially since the foundation of the Referendum Party in the early 90s, and later UKIP.
Another landslide victory now might finally silence Britain’s large numbers of Eurosceptics but this outcome seems unlikely given polls are currently on a knife edge. A narrow victory for “remain” might only stoke the debate. This is also what happened after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, where the yes vote won with 55%, but the Scottish National Party (who advocated for independence) went on to do better at the subsequent general election than ever before. A victory for “leave” would obviously have the most significant consequences; what exactly would be on offer for Britain outside the EU hasn’t even yet been fully made clear.

UKIP has been led by Nigel Farage since 2006.

The outcome of this referendum is going to define David Cameron’s legacy and shape Britain’s international relations for a very long time. In this article, we take a look at the possible outcomes and what to watch out for between now and June 23rd.

The outcomes

Polls are currently 50-50 or show the “remain” side ever so slightly in the lead. But the 2015 general election – where polling consistently predicted a hung parliament and the Conservatives ended up winning comfortably – has left political commentators in Britain wary of putting too much faith in polling, even if the weighting has been refined. So all of these possible outcomes are very much on the table:

Leave wins with a landslide

It’s hard to say what a landslide victory looks like. Anything over 65% would definitely count as a landslide; anything over 55% will have pro-Leave newspapers calling it that. It will depend on how surprising the outcome feels by the time the referendum comes around.
This outcome will mean that Britain leaves the EU – if this statement seems self-evident, wait for the other possible outcome and marvel at the bizarreness of referendum politics in a country that has only held two referenda so far in the past forty years. There will then be a very long negotiation where the EU tries to work out what position Britain gets to occupy in relation to various EU perks. Will Britain get access to the single market? How much freedom of movement will EU and British citizens be allowed? These questions haven’t yet been answered and probably no concrete answer will be found until after the vote has been held. It seems likely that the deal Britain gets won’t be generous, so that other EU countries with Eurosceptic movements aren’t encouraged to follow Britain’s lead.

EU students are likely to find access to UK universities more difficult.
EU students are likely to find access to UK universities more difficult.

What this means for international students largely depends on whether the student in question is an EU citizen or not. Access to British universities is likely to become harder for EU students. Without EU restrictions, fees charged to EU nationals are likely to go up, and a host of EU projects designed to encourage students to travel to different EU countries will no longer apply to the UK. For non-EU international students, however, the picture may be rosier – with fewer EU students, universities may be more eager to encourage applications from other countries around the world.

Leave wins, but not by much

If Leave wins by a small margin – say 52-48 – the situation becomes even more uncertain. It’s been suggested by several people, most notably the departing Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that Britain could pursue a two-referendum strategy: vote Leave, use the threat of leaving to extract a more generous new deal from Brussels, and then have a second referendum in which the more generous deal would (presumably) induce people to vote Remain. Whether this would be constitutionally valid has been hotly debated, but given that Britain lacks a written constitution and holds referenda so rarely, the answer is probably that it will hold if the public accept it. This is why this outcome becomes possible if the vote for Leave wins narrowly.

Boris Johnson has advocated the two-referendum strategy.
Johnson has advocated the two-referendum strategy.

It’s also more likely to come about if it seems politically desirable to have another go. It’s not impossible that the vote will be split dramatically by generation, with older voters choosing Leave in significantly greater numbers than younger voters. If this split is really extreme, the government might conclude that the younger generation of voters will not forgive them if Britain does leave the EU – and that this may have grave consequences at the ballot box in a few years’ time.
If the two-referendum solution does end up coming to pass, or even seeming like it might be a possibility, then this will mean a lot of uncertainty for international students, particularly EU nationals. Far from this decision being over and done by the time votes have been counted (about 4am on the morning of the 24th June), there could be months of debate still to come.

Remain wins, but not by much

Currently this is the most probable outcome according polls, but a lot could change between now and the 23rd of June. In the event of Remain winning by a small margin, David Cameron’s renegotiated deal for the UK in the EU would come into play. These changes concern things like EU workers’ entitlements to benefits in the UK, the role of different currencies within the EU, and an exemption for Britain from the goal of “ever-closer union” – matters that affect large numbers of people from international banks to builders sending their wages home to their families on the other side of the continent, but that will not make a huge difference to international students.

David Cameron's successor may well not share his views on Europe.
Cameron’s successor may well not share his views on Europe.

But if the victory for Remain is a narrow one, don’t expect the issue to disappear. There won’t be a second referendum within months (aside from anything else, referenda are very expensive) but there might well be one within five years. David Cameron has said that he will step down as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party before the 2020 election, and the new Conservative Leader (and therefore new Prime Minister) might well be drawn from the sizeable chunk of the party supporting Leave; a narrow victory for Remain across the country for a whole will probably mean that Leave was the preferred choice of a large majority of Conservative voters. And a newly-minted Eurosceptic Prime Minister might well want to pursue another referendum before demographic changes (remember that Leave voters are disproportionately older) put leaving the EU out of reach for ever.

Remain wins by a landslide

The amount of votes Remain would need for what would be considered a landslide is a lot higher than would be required for Leave to achieve the same thing. So to seem as if a really significant victory had been achieved by Remain, it would probably need to win around 70% of the vote – not an outcome that is particularly likely. But let’s explore what it would mean anyway.
First of all, it would be a defining moment in David Cameron’s career. Shedding decades of uncertainty and Eurosceptism and ending up unifying the country in favour of a future in the EU would be seen as a remarkable triumph for him politically. Europe is the issue that has dogged the Conservative party and opened up vicious infighting for decades; a landslide victory for Remain would bring this to an end.

Unhappy Eurosceptics make a Remain landslide unlikely.
Unhappy Eurosceptics make a Remain landslide unlikely.

It might also open up interesting possibilities for Britain in Europe. The UK has been on the periphery of the EU for a long time, reluctant to get properly involved. But a resounding victory for Remain might change this; it would certainly encourage British politicians to see prioritising relations with the EU as a vote-winner, which it hasn’t been in the past. And given that one of the key issues that has stoked Euroscepticism in the UK has been immigration, a landslide victory for Remain might lead to tamer rhetoric on immigration than British politicians have displayed over the past few years. This would be good for international students of all nationalities, not just those from the EU, as it might lead to a relaxation of rules designed to cut down on the number of international students entering the country (a narrow victory for Remain, on the other hand, might lead to even tougher immigration laws to placate unhappy Eurosceptics). While a narrow victory by either side wouldn’t settle long-term uncertainty for EU nationals considering studying in the UK, a resounding victory for Remain would allow such students to plan not only for an undergraduate degree in the UK, but possibly a Masters and PhD as well.
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What to watch out for between now and June 23

How often the two-referendum solution gets mentioned

It’s in the interests of both staunch Remainers and staunch Leavers to discourage the idea of a two-referendum solution; the Remainers because they don’t want people who are mildly pro-EU voting Leave in the June 23rd referendum in the hope of getting a better deal later, and the Leavers because they want a vote to Leave, no matter how marginal, to be treated as final. But the group of the undecided is as large as either of those two groups, and there are plenty of people promoting the two-referendum solution as a way to find a compromise option in a binary decision. The more a two-referendum solution gets discussed, the more acceptable it will seem come June 24th.

Rifts in major political parties

Some British political parties are unified in their stance on the EU. UKIP is committed to Leave; indeed, its foundation was based on the desire to leave the EU. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP are just as committed to Remain. But the Conservative Party, and to a lesser extent, Labour, are split.
The Conservative splits have had more airtime, and run deeper. Seven members of the Cabinet have now announced that they will back Leave against Cameron’s recommendation, and more than half of Conservative MPs may ultimately campaign for Leave – although some, such as the staunch Eurosceptic David Morris, have announced they will back Remain out of loyalty to Cameron. The Conservatives are well aware that a battle for the leadership of their party, and by extension, of the country, beckons, and every leading Tory’s decisions on the referendum are being viewed in this light.

Corbyn's agnosticism could lead to a rift within his party.
Corbyn’s agnosticism could lead to a rift within his party.

Labour is broadly pro-EU, but the left wing of the party has historically been more Eurosceptic, a feeling further inflamed by the Greek bailout – and that wing is now in ascendancy given that Labour has its most left-wing leader in decades in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has spoken in favour of Remain, but not with much enthusiasm; if he lets his agnosticism on the EU show too much, it may get him into trouble with his more Europhile colleagues.


Which pro-Leave campaign becomes official

There are currently three leading Leave campaigns – Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Grassroots Out, plus sundry smaller groups. But there can be only one official Leave campaign, and while there is a form of unity between Leave.EU and Grassroots Out, Vote Leave isn’t willing to work with them. (Meanwhile, Remain supporters united behind Britain Stronger in Europe months ago). The problem that Leave faces is that there are lots of competing and contradictory visions of what Britain will look like if it leaves the EU, and the different campaigns are each promoting a different version.
Broadly speaking, Leave.EU and Grassroots Out are more right-wing campaigns, with immigration as a key factor. Vote Leave has gathered a broader coalition of politicians, and focuses on issues such as regulation and the way the EU is governed. The non-official campaign will be severely restricted in the amount that it can spend, so the official campaign will do a great deal to set the tone of the debate, and perhaps even the priorities of Britain outside the EU should Leave win.
It’s clear that a great deal is still up in the air about the EU referendum, and a marginal vote on the 23rd June might only add to the muddle. But if you’re an international student thinking of studying in Britain, then it’s worth watching out for developments – Britain will not emerge from the next few months unchanged, no matter what happens.

Image credits: european parliament; nigel farage; student in library; boris johnson; jeremy corbyn; david cameron


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