The EU referendum: a guide to the UK's biggest political decision of the century

Karren Brady

It is probably the most important decision the British public has faced in decades, but how is the EU referendum actually going to work?

There are a multitude of arguments on either side about whether Britain should stay or go, but here we look at the process of the referendum, why it is happening and who gets to have their say.

Let’s start with the basics: what is the referendum question and when is the referendum?

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” will be the question on Thursday 23 June 2016.

Voters can choose between two responses:

  • Remain a member of the European Union.
  • Leave the European Union.

The somewhat wordy question is designed to avoid any confusion if, for example, voters do not know whether the UK is already a member of the EU. It also avoids the positive connotations of a “yes” answer. The Electoral Commission was criticised by some experts for allowing a yes/no question in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Why are we having a referendum?

The last time Britain voted on the issue was in 1975, when the EU was known as the European common market. Many argue that the EU’s scope and purpose has shifted dramatically since then, in a way that could not have been predicted by those who voted yes the first time around.

Critics say the bloc affects our lives more than we ever knew it would, through business regulation, security and justice, energy policy, building rules and freedom of movement, to name just a few areas.

OK, but why are we having a referendum now?

We’re having a referendum this year because it was politically expedient for prime minister David Cameron in 2013, when the Conservative party was under pressure because of the rising popularity of Ukip, which went on to win the European elections the following year. Ukip’s raison d’etre is seeking a so-called Brexit – Britain exiting the EU.

It was a promise that Cameron hoped would keep Eurosceptics backing his party: vote Conservative in the general election in 2015 and we will deliver an in-out referendum within two years, after a renegotiation of Britain’s position in the EU.

A vote for Nigel Farage’s UK Independence party in the general election, Cameron suggested, would give Labour the keys to No 10 and end the prospect of EU reform.

What did David Cameron ask the EU to change in his negotiations?

Cameron wanted politicians in Brussels to agree to change several key things, having originally vowed that he would campaign himself for Britain to leave the union if he did not get suitable concessions.

The demands included:

  • A ban on migrants sending child benefit to children living abroad.
  • Agreement that EU migrants could not be considered for a council house unless they had been living in an area for at least four years.
  • A four-year curb on in-work benefits for newly arrived migrants.
  • An opt-out from “ever closer union”, which is an EU treaty commitment.
  • Recognition that the euro is not the currency of the EU, which Cameron feared could disadvantage Britain because the country does not have the euro.
  • New powers to exclude nationals of a country outside the EU who marry EU citizens, and also to exclude people seen as a “security risk”.

And what did he actually get?

  • Child benefit payments for children living overseas will not be stopped, but they will be recalculated to reflect the cost of living in those countries, which might be substantially different to Britain.
  • The UK will have a so-called “emergency brake” in the event of “exceptional” levels of migration, when it can decide to limit in-work benefits for EU migrants during their first four years in the UK. However, that can last no longer than seven years.
  • An EU treaty change will make explicitly clear that the UK is not part of an “ever closer union” with other member states.
  • Britain will not be discriminated against within the bloc for not being part of the eurozone.
  • EU nationals married to non-EU nationals may not have automatic free movement rights unless their spouse receives specific leave to remain in the EU country where they currently live. New powers to exclude “security threats” have also been agreed.

Which politicians and public figures want to stay in the EU?

David Cameron and George Osborne, the prime minister and the chancellor, both want Britain to stay in the EU, as do a large chunk of the Conservative cabinet, including home secretary Theresa May, health secretary Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary Philip Hammond and defence secretary Michael Fallon.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, and pretty much the entire opposition front bench also want to stay in the EU, although Corbyn has previously expressed some Euroscepticism, as has shadow chancellor John McDonnell. The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Green party are also predominantly for remaining in the union.

The in campaign also has prominent businesspeople at the forefront, who are extolling the economic benefits of staying in the EU. They include Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson; Lord Rose, former chairman of Marks & Spencer; and Karren Brady, vice-chair of West Ham United and star of The Apprentice.

Who is your typical ‘remainiac’?

According to YouGov, if you’re middle class, aged under 30, have a university degree and live in Scotland, you are most likely to want to stay in the EU.

Because Scotland is the region most in favour of the union, with YouGov finding that 60% will vote to remain, SNP first minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated that a Brexit could be grounds for a second Scottish referendum on independence.

Young voters are particularly keen on the EU: 63% of those aged 18-29 want to remain. Around 56% of people who are considered to belong to the AB social class – which usually means those in professional occupations – support the EU, and among graduates that figure is 62%.

More than 70% of Guardian and Independent readers plan to vote for continued EU membership.

Which politicians and public figures want to leave?

Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip, is the face most people would automatically associate with the Brexit campaign. However, about half of all Conservative MPs, including five cabinet ministers, want to leave the EU, along with several prominent Labour MPs.

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is the out-er who has caused the biggest ruction, declaring his position with much fanfare in February. Michael Gove, justice secretary and a close friend of the prime minister, has also broken ranks and said he will campaign to leave.

Other cabinet colleagues who will do the same include work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Commons leader Chris Grayling and culture secretary John Whittingdale. Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate in this year’s London mayoral election, is also behind the leave campaign.

On the left, Labour MPs Frank Field and Kate Hoey have been campaigning to leave, as has George Galloway, the firebrand former Respect MP who is campaigning to be mayor of London.

Who is your typical Brexit-er?

A pensioner in East Anglia is most likely to vote to leave, according to YouGov.

The polls show 56% of Britons aged over 60 want to leave, which is a good thing for the out campaign, because older people are far more likely to vote. East Anglia, the West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber are the areas where people are more keen for the UK to leave the EU.

Express readers are most likely to favour a Brexit – 66% of them. The split is more pronounced among readers of the pro-leave Daily Mail and Sun; however, four in 10 of their readers intend to vote to stay in the EU.

And 48% of the pro-EU Mirror readership actually do plan to vote to leave.

How will the campaign work?

The Electoral Commission will oversee the contest to make sure it is fair and has set out guidance on its website. Groups can apply to be the “designated campaign” for either side, until the deadline of 31 March. The commission will decide which groups will lead their side of the campaign on 14 April.

Official campaigns will get a grant of up to £600,000 and have a spending limit of £7m. They are also entitled to campaign broadcasts and free mailshots. Other groups are still allowed to campaign, but must not spend more than £700,000 and must report the sources of donations. If they don’t register with the commission they will be limited to spending less than £10,000.

Political parties can also spend money on the campaigns. The Conservatives have £7m, Labour is limited to £5.5m, Ukip £4m and the Lib Dems £3m. Other parties have a limit of £700,000.

So who are the groups who could be in charge of campaigning?

This is a bit tricky, so let’s start with remain, because the leave explanation is more complicated…

Remain

Britain Stronger in Europe: this is the main cross-party campaign to stay in the union, headed up by Lord Rose. It is certain to get the funding from the Electoral Commission for this side of the referendum debate.

Leave

Vote Leave: a campaign led by former Conservative chancellor Lord Lawson, and run by Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Michael Gove, and Matthew Elliott, who ran the No2AV campaign during the referendum on voting reform. Other key figures include Boris Johnson and Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell. Labour Leave, the official Labour group for a Brexit, which is backed by donor John Mills, is also part of this campaign.

GO Movement: the Eurosceptic Grassroots Out group was founded by Conservative MPs Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove and Labour MP Kate Hoey in January, amid vicious infighting in Vote Leave and inanother anti-EU group, Leave.EU. Leave.EU is funded by Ukip donor Arron Banks and has the backing of Ukip leader Nigel Farage and former Respect MP George Galloway. In mid-February, Eurosceptics from the Grassroots Out campaign, Ukip and Leave.EU – but not Vote Leave – said they would seek official designation as the GO Movement.

Has the campaign started?

Basically, yes, but technically the campaign period designated by the Electoral Commission is 15 April until polling day on 23 June.

Who will be able to vote?

  • British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK.
  • UK nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register in the UK in the past 15 years.
  • Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar.

Can EU citizens living in the UK vote in the referendum?

No. Just like a general election, EU citizens living in the UK are barred from taking part, even though they are a group of people most likely to be affected by the outcome.

How can I vote? And can I vote if I’m on holiday?

  • Once you have registered, you will get a card in the post telling you the polling station you will have to visit on referendum day.
  • Go to the polling station on 23 June and get your ballot paper, where you can place an X in the box next to “remain” or “leave”, whichever you choose. Then put the paper in the ballot box.
  • You can also register for a postal vote, so you can vote if you’re planning to be in the mud at Glastonbury or in France watching Euro 2016, which are both taking place at the same time.

When will we know the results and how are they counted?

Polls will close at 10pm, which is when overnight counts will get under way at 232 centres across the country. Local results will be declared and then the totals will be collated at 12 different regional centres. The final result will be announced at Manchester town hall by a chief counting officer.

At Britain’s last referendum (on voting reform), which was held on Thursday 5 May 2011, the final result was declared at 1am on Saturday 7 May, more than 24 hours later. But it became clear that the no vote was ahead far earlier than that, after regional counts were declared.

What happens after the vote?

It would be tough to boil down the long-term implications of a leave vote into a pithy answer, but here’s what would happen practically.

Conveniently or not, depending on how you look at it, the referendum falls on the first day of the regular mid-summer EU summit, which might mean a somewhat tense dinner for leaders there on Thursday night.

Cameron has insisted he would not delay in starting proceedings to withdraw if voters say so. Practically speaking, article 50 of the EU treaty sets out that a state can quit and gives a deadline to negotiate terms within two years.

The EU can permit an extension if trade and migration issues have not been hammered out. But if not, the membership will just expire.

Will Cameron resign if the out campaign wins?

The other major immediate implication of a vote to leave is that Cameron may resign as prime minister. He has already indicated that he will not serve a third term as prime minister, and failing to convince the public to vote to stay would be the most obvious moment to resign.

He has, however, stated that he will not resign if voters plump for a Brexit. “Come what may, I will continue to lead the government in the way I have,” he said in the House of Commons in January.

Is there any way the vote result could not be binding?

The referendum result is not legally binding – parliament still has to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act if the leave campaign wins, and ratify the withdrawal agreement.

MPs could technically choose to ignore the referendum result and block the agreement, but it would be madness for politicians to attempt to go directly against a popular referendum result.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th March 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010