Referendum Jitters Brexit Vote Heading for a Cliffhanger

Britain’s June 23 referendum may be too close to call, as the lead of the Vote Remain campaign narrows. With mounting fears that Brexit may lead to an unraveling of the European Union, business leaders have appealed for a vote to stay in the bloc.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (r) and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (l) campaign for Remain.

 

Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s finance minister, recently described Brexit as a “detonator” that could split the European Union apart — and many share his fears.

An opinion poll released Tuesday by British polling group YouGov showed that people in several European countries expect a domino effect if Britain votes to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum. A majority of people polled in Britain, Germany, France and Sweden said a British exit made it probable that more countries would leave the bloc, YouGov said.

With just over three weeks to go, there’s no clear indication of the outcome. The YouGov survey showed supporters and opponents neck-and-neck with around 40 percent each. Some 14 percent of people are undecided and 6 percent said they didn’t plan to vote.

Meanwhile, another poll published Tuesday by conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph  showed that the lead of the “Vote Remain” campaign had narrowed considerably from previous surveys; 51 percent said they want their country to remain in the European Unioin, and 46 percent want to leave.

Another poll published in the Guardian newspaper and conducted by the ICM polling firm saw Brexit having the edge, with voters split 52 percent -48 percent in favor of leaving the European Union.

With the vote promising to be so close, the tension is mounting across the economic bloc.

How the Rest of the E.U. Would Vote (1)-01

 

In an open letter released Tuesday, the heads of Europe’s largest companies, including Vodafone’s chief executive, Vittorio Colao and Shell boss Ben van Beurden, warned of the consequences of Brexit. The German signatories included Joe Kaeser of industrial group Siemens, Kurt Bock of chemicals giant BASF, Heinrich Hiesinger of steel and engineering group ThyssenKrupp, Timotheus Höttges of Deutsche Telekom, Bill McDermott of business software company SAP and Johannes Teyssen of power company Eon.

But their intervention may have no more impact than an appeal by U.S. President Barack Obama in April. Mr. Obama warned the country would go to the "back of the queue" in trade talks with Washington if it left — but his words failed to turn the tide in favor of the pro-Europe camp.

The battle for votes is intensifying by the day. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has formed an unlikely alliance with the new Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to campaign against Brexit, just weeks after suggesting that the son of a bus driver from Pakistan had ties with Islamic extremists.

Mr. Cameron has been warning that Brexit would have dire consequences for Britain’s economy. His opponents, including London’s former mayor Boris Johnson, have accused him of failing to keep his promise to curb immigration. That’s a key issue in the referendum, as the YouGov survey showed: asked where they saw the greatest need for reform in the E.U., two out of three respondents cited immigration and welfare benefits.

Mr. Cameron’s former election campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, said the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration had helped them gain support even though Mr. Cameron secured an agreement from fellow E.U. leaders in February to reduce immigration to Britain from other member states in future.

 

There is not only a good economic argument in favor of European integration, but also a moral and historic one. Emmanuel Roman,, chief executive of Man Group

Only one in five Britons polled answered Yes when asked whether they had recently seen or heard something positive about the E.U. But the share was even lower among German respondents.

Asked which country benefits most from the European Union, Britons gave a clear answer: Germany. And 30 percent of Britons said E.U. membership was bad for their country. Mr. Cameron only has three weeks left to make them change their minds.

Emmanuel Roman, the French chief executive of London-based hedge fund Man Group, said he was opposed to Brexit and that Britain’s financial sector would suffer if the country left the European Union.

“It takes an enormous amount of time to negotiate trade agreements,” he said in an interview with Handelsblatt. “What would the U.K. be outside of Europe? No one knows. It’s totally untested. We can all make guesses about what it would be but nobody knows for sure ahead of the vote. For instance, what would happen to working permits for people? At Man Group, we employ an enormous amount of people from different countries – would they still be allowed to work here?"

 

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"I feel that I am a citizen of Europe," he said. "I come from a small French town close to the German border. I feel a strong European identity and am very pro-European from a philosophical and cultural point of view. I think there is not only a good economic argument in favor of European integration, but also a moral and historic one."

He added: “I think it’s worth trying to remind them what Europe was like before the European Union existed and what the E.U. has achieved as a democracy and as a place where people have a decent life over the past four decades.”

Asked whether all the E.U.’s achievements were at stake in the June 23 referendum, he said: “To a degree, yes, and the consequences could be dramatic. For instance, it opens up a lot of questions about other regions - what would happen with Spain and Catalonia?”

But Mr. Roman said that he still felt the remain camp would triumph in the end. "My gut feeling is the UK will stay in Europe," he said.

 

Carsten Herz and Katharina Slodczyk are Handelsblatt's correspondents in London. To contact them: [email protected], [email protected]