As the renegotiation comes to a close, Britain is preparing for a once in a lifetime choice. The choice has always been clear: do we remain engaged the world’s most successful union, or do we choose the path of the loner. To leave the European Union would be to sacrifice Britain’s national interest for its national pride; the world won’t stop spinning, but it will be a much darker place for British exit.
The European referendum will have dramatic consequences – be it for global security, economic stability or even the continued existence of the United Kingdom. All segments of society will be affected by a British exit, but the poor and the vulnerable will suffer the most. European funding for deprived regions like Northern Ireland and the North-East of England would dry up, while essential European regulation like the Working Time Directive could be scrapped at a whim. Britain would be left to form its own trade pacts, and would probably fare quite badly without the clout of the world’s largest single market. The imposition of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – an inevitable consequence of the divergence of immigration policy likely to follow a Brexit – could reignite the Troubles, and the Union itself could be broken up by the Scottish Nationalists.
Yet the group which will suffer the most from a British exit will be students and young adults. People who have their whole lives ahead of them, for whom Europe is as much as home as Britain. With an optimistically predicted contraction of 2.2 per cent expected after Brexit, the tough jobs market of a few years ago would come back with a bite. Academics would suffer too, as €8.8 billion of funding from Brussels dried up. With funding for research still scarce in Britain, future researchers and inventors could vote with their feet. Britain’s reputation as a global place of learning would be shattered, just as British influence in global affairs would wane.
On Friday of first week, the Oxford Students for Europe campaign launched in Christ Church. With over a hundred students from both universities in attendance, it is clear that students will play a pivotal role in the campaign to keep Britain in Europe. Young people on the doorstep, canvassing and getting out the vote will transform the campaign from a shoddy re-run of ‘Project Fear’ to a hopeful and optimistic campaign about whether we hope to be ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Little England.’ Furthermore, students will be living proof of the quiet moderation of the British voter; for too long, Eurosceptics have pushed the UK away from Europe through their loud rhetoric. The Remain campaign, always likely to be more diverse than Leave, will be bolstered by the fresh faces of tomorrow; the campaign will give Nigel Farage yet another reason to be grumpy.
Unlike the Scottish referendum, the government almost certainly wants the status quo. To some extent, so long as the Leave campaign doesn’t capture the hearts of the youth like the Yes campaign did in Scotland, it’s unlikely that the referendum could lead to a ‘neverendum.’ In stark contrast to UKIP, the SNP present themselves as socially liberal progressives, even if their policies don’t reflect their rhetoric; UKIP is a party of the middle aged, hence the lack of a serious Oxford UKIP Society. The size of the Eurosceptic core vote in ten years’ time will be dwarfed by Europhilic vote, provided students across the country can be engaged by the arguments for staying in.
It’s always difficult to get non-voters to start voting. Ultimately, it’s this political fact which makes a Corbyn victory in 2020 so implausible, and it poses a major problem for the Remain campaign. If the youth vote can be successfully engaged, Britain’s majority for staying in can deliver a sensible and final answer to the biggest constitutional question of our lifetimes. Oxford Students for Europe is affiliated with the national Students for Europe campaign and will undoubtedly play a massive role in the campaign to come. Given just how close student interests align with remaining in the EU, the youth vote will be critical to a successful campaign to stay in. The launch event showed promise, but Oxford Students for Europe will have to work much more broadly to spread their message over the Eurosceptic rhetoric.
We live in exciting if frightening times. Britain could sleepwalk out of the EU. Here in the country’s intellectual heart, we have a special vantage point for the campaign. As a city dominated by a ‘metropolitan elite,’ the campaign must reach out across class and social divisions to engage young voters. If it can’t do so, the minority of Britons who want to leave the European Union could force a dramatic and damaging exit that would change the world profoundly.