A majority of London’s diplomats predict that Britain will vote to remain in the EU, but by the finest of margins.
In the Embassy BREXIT Poll, almost two thirds (63%) of respondents forecast that Britain will opt for the status quo, while more than a quarter (26%) think the UK will choose to exit the EU. Eleven per cent feel the vote is still too close to call.
When asked to predict the voting margin, most anticipated a very close vote with “single digits” separating the two sides. The median prediction was 52% opting to remain and 48% choosing to leave.
When asked for the reasoning behind their predictions, diplomats said most people were risk-averse and would chose the status quo over uncertainty. “Worries over the economy will overshadow concerns over migration,” said one Latin American Ambassador.
“Vote Leave will do worse than the polls predict. The polls tend exaggerate support for BREXIT because their followers are more committed and more vocal,” said a senior diplomat.
Loss of global influence
The survey also asked diplomats how important Britain’s EU membership was for its influence on the global stage and its bilateral relations with other, non-EU countries.
Diplomats from all regions agreed that Britain would lose global influence if it chose to leave the EU. As one High Commissioner put it: “There is no British Empire anymore. Leaving will definitely weaken the UK’s status and credibility on a global level.”
A senior British diplomat told Embassy that a vote to leave the EU could trigger a second Scottish independence referendum and the break-up of the Union, which could lead to Britain losing its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
In terms of combatting global threats, such as climate change or terrorism, envoys from all regions felt the UK, working in partnership with the EU, was “very important”.
When it comes to security, Britain’s continued membership of the EU was most important to EU respondents, but was also seen as “very” or “fairly” important to African countries.
But for a few dissenting countries, particularly those with long historic ties to the UK, the UK’s membership of the EU could be a “hindrance” to their bilateral security cooperation, said one Ambassador. “The UK is attached to this big organisation so it does not have the flexibility to act fast. Sometimes it would be more effective acting on its own.”
On development, Africans and EU neighbouring countries were most concerned that without Britain’s contribution to the EU aid budget, development assistance would be reduced. EU partners also indicated that Britain was important to the EU’s overall development agenda.
Trade and investment
When it comes to trade, a BREXIT vote would have a “very negative” impact on EU trading relations, particularly over the short term. Latin Americans also felt their trade with Britain would be hit “fairly hard”if Britain voted to leave, particularly those countries with existing trade agreements with the EU.
“We rely on the UK to be a liberalising force within the EU, to counter some of the protectionst sentiments of other EU members,” pointed out one Latin American Ambassador.
A diplomat from the Pacific region echoed these sentiments: “The UK is a staunch ally of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in the EU-ACP trade / aid negotiations.”
Asian and African respondents expected little or no impact on their trading relations should Britain vote to leave.
British membership of the single market was “very influential” for investors from the EU, North America and East Asia, but was not a major consideration for investors from Africa, Latin America or South Asia, according to the Embassy poll. “Investment is like water, it will take the path of least resistance. The bigger consideration is the strength of the UK economy,” said one respondent.
Movement of people
For EU members, ‘People-to-people’ ties – the movement of workers or students – are “greatly enhanced” by Britain’s membership.
But for countries in Africa and Latin America, EU membership has had a “restrictive” effect on the movement of people to Britain, because the UK has had to clamp down on non-EU migration to compensate for the influx of EU migrants. However, diplomats doubted that Britain leaving the EU would relieve pressure on non-EU migration into Britain.
Whatever the outcome, most diplomats predicted that a close vote would cause infighting within the Conservative Party and possibly even a leadership contest.
“Europe will also have to change,” said a European Ambassador. “The sentiments stirred up in Britain’s referendum debate have had resonance across Europe.”