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LONDON: The UK is going to the polls on Thursday (today) to decide whether the country should remain in the European Union. Opinion polls suggest the result is on a knife-edge and that either side could win.
Supporters and opponents of the EU both acknowledge the importance of the referendum. Earlier this month, Nigel Farage, one of the leading advocates of the UK leaving the European Union — the so-called Brexit — told an audience in the northern English city of Leeds that: “this is the most important vote that any of you will ever have in your lives.”
Similarly, former prime minister John Major, who believes the UK should remain in the EU, has said the referendum matters more than most general elections. “This is going to affect people, their livelihoods and their future for a very long time to come,” he said.
Britain joined what was the European Economic Community in 1973. Some in the UK have subsequently complained that what started out as a free trade area has turned into a political project that undermines national level sovereignty.
Others argue the EU has helped produce peace in a part of the world previously used to conflict.
The increasingly bad-tempered referendum campaign has centred on two issues: the economy and migration.
The remain campaigners, who want to stay in the EU, point to warnings from major financial institutions such as the IMF and Bank of England that if Brexit wins there will be a sharp fall in the value of sterling and significant negative effects on the economy. In recent days, the London stock market has experienced large movements up and down in line with newly published polls showing a lead for remain and leave, respectively.
Leave campaigners say that even if there will be short-term economic costs, in the long term Brexit will bring benefits because the burden of EU regulations will be eased and the UK’s contributions to the EU budget will be available for domestic priorities.
The migration issue has been even more contentious. Leave campaigners argue that the number of people coming to the UK is unacceptably high and can only be brought down if Britain takes back control of its borders.
Every EU citizen has the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union. With the UK’s economy growing faster than many others in Europe in recent years, significant numbers of East European migrants have been coming to the UK to find work.
Remain campaigners argue that migration is an unavoidable feature of globalisation and that if Britain votes for Brexit then it won’t make much difference to migration because the rest of the EU is likely to insist on free movement of labour as a condition of access to the European market.
A row about an anti-EU election poster released in the final days of the campaign reflected the tone of much of the debate about immigration. The poster showed a huge queue of migrants under the caption: “Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all.”
Mr Farage defended the poster as valid criticism of the way some European countries, such as Germany, have handled the flow of migrants from Syria, North Africa and Asia. Critics complained that the poster was racist and stoked up irrelevant fears as few, if any, of the migrants depicted in the poster would have ended up in the UK.
Polls suggest that while British whites split almost exactly 50/50 on whether the UK should be in the EU, members of the country’s ethnic minorities are more likely to be in the remain camp.
Those polling trends are reflected in the policy positions adopted by leading British Asian politicians. Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the newly elected Mayor of London, is a strong advocate of staying in. “Leaving the EU would be a betrayal of British values and send a message to the world that the country wants to stand alone,” he said.
The Conservative Party’s Baroness Warsi attracted headlines late in the campaign when she announced that she was switching from leave to remain because of what she described as the hate and xenophobia of the Brexit camp. Leave campaigners retorted that they were unaware she had been campaigning for Brexit before her change of heart.
But some minority voters favour leaving the EU and Priti Patel, the UK employment minister, is a leading voice calling for Brexit.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has hinted that he favours the UK staying in. While declining to make an explicit statement on the issue he told journalists in November last year that: “As far as India is concerned, if there is an entry point for us to the EU, that is the UK and that is Great Britain.”
One of the remain campaign’s arguments has been that inward investment into the UK will dry up as foreign companies seeking access to the European single market will consider the UK less favourably.
Mr Modi’s remarks reflected the views of Indian corporates that have invested in the UK with a view to gaining access to the European market. Earlier this month the European spokesman for Tata steel, Tim Morris, wrote to the staff, saying a third of the steel Tata produces in the UK is exported to Europe, “so access to that market is fundamental to our business”.
Many pundits believe the result will depend on turnout with the consensus being that a higher turnout will help the remain side. The result will be known a few hours after the polls close.