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Britain Inches Closer To Referendum On Whether To Leave EU


Well, has not been the easiest year for the European Union. First, it had to deal with Greece going bankrupt, and then a flood of migrants from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East began overwhelming its support system and finally now, at the end of the year, a threat that the United Kingdom could be getting closer to leaving the EU altogether. Britons will vote in a referendum - likely next year - about whether they want to stay or go. NPR's Robert Smith joins us from London to talk about this. Hey, Robert.


GREENE: So just a little bit of history. The U.K. - I mean, since the 1970s, they've been part of the European economic family, right? Why are they talking about leaving now?

SMITH: Yeah, you know, they've always had this sort of weird relationship with Europe here in the U.K. I mean, they were always skeptical. In fact, they joined the European experiment back when they had a bad economy in the 1970s. But ever since then, they just haven't been certain about it. You know, they decided not to use the euro. They still use the pound sterling here, much to the consternation of much of Europe. And they're always grumbling about the billions of pounds they have to pay out to support the EU. And so David Cameron, the conservative prime minister - he's very smart politically. When he was running for re-election, he said, you know, we should just have a referendum, right? Let's let the people decide whether we should be part of Europe or not.

GREENE: Which sounds good for politics. It's your decision.

SMITH: Oh, absolutely. It got him re-elected, but then, of course, he has to actually do it. He has to go through with the vote.

GREENE: If he goes through next year, as we're expecting - I mean, any idea what the result would be if, say, it happened right now - like, where the polls are?

SMITH: Well, here's the thing. When Cameron promised this, most people probably would have voted to stay in the EU, but since then, the U.K. has started to become very concerned about internal migration. The population of the U.K. has been spiking because of people coming in from the rest of Europe. And then they see on the television screen all of these Syrian Middle Eastern migrant pouring into Europe, and there is a growing fear here that the U.K. will become overwhelmed. And so because of that fear, basically, the polls now show it neck and neck. About half the people might support leaving Europe.

GREENE: Has David Cameron actually weighed in himself in terms of where he wants this to go?

SMITH: Yeah, he supports staying in the EU, but a lot of his conservative party members want to leave, so he's playing this super careful game. Last week, he went to a summit of European leaders. And he said to them, you know, we've got to do this referendum thing, so maybe you can sort of sweeten the pot for the U.K. Maybe you can give us this special deal. And one of the things he wanted from these European leaders was a way to slow the flow of migration into the U.K. And he said how about this - how about we limit benefits for immigrants? You have to live in the U.K. for four years before you can get any sort of assistance.

GREENE: So he's kind of dangling this is a threat with other European leaders in way.

SMITH: Yeah, I mean, to get something that the U.K. public will approve of. And, you know, I've got to say it did not go over that well in Brussels at this meeting because the whole concept of EU is that every country is equal. There is a free flow and migration of peoples around Europe. And so, you know, a lot of these people coming into the U.K. are from Eastern Europe. And Eastern European leaders said this isn't fair. You can't discriminate against our people. If British workers get benefits, then everyone should get benefits. That is the point of the EU.

GREENE: If this actually happened - if Britons actually voted to leave - this could be a big deal and have serious implications, right?

SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of business people are worried here in the U.K. because a lot of companies are based here to have access to this giant European market. I mean, the EU is the biggest economy in the world. You want to be a part of that if you're a business person. And then there is this worry about the impact on Europe. If they were to lose the U.K., this major member of the European Union, other countries might start to think, well, wait a minute. Like, I want a better deal. And if I don't get my deal, then I'm going to have a vote. I'm going to leave.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Robert Smith talking to us about what could happen in Britain next year - likely a referendum on whether Britons want to leave the European Union. And, Robert, thanks a lot.

SMITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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