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TODAY, the British people will make the most important voting decision in their lives by choosing whether the UK should continue to be a nation within the European Union (EU).
They will vote on the referendum question: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
In a remarkable example of democracy, Cabinet ministers and politicians from all parties have put aside their political differences and have become allies for either "Remain" in the EU, or "Leave".
Prime Minister David Cameron; Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party; and leaders of the Liberal Democrat and Green parties recommend that British voters play it safe and vote for "Remain" even though all believe that the EU needs urgent reform.
"Leave" is headed by Michael Gove, Justice Secretary; Boris Johnson, former London mayor; and Gisela Stuart, an immigrant from Germany and Labour MP; while Nigel Farage is leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Those who are in favour of leaving believe that Britain should, as a democratic state, make its own laws and not be encumbered by rules and regulations of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. They also contend that with 28 member states, the EU has become so unwieldy that it counters the democratic rights of its 500 million people. Some 44.7 million voters are eligible to vote, including UK nationals living abroad.
With polls neck and neck and with "Remain" marginally ahead, the English vote of 37.4 million is the key. Scotland, led by the Scottish National Party, has 3.9 million votes and the populace is so vigorously in favour of staying in the EU that another referendum could well take place there in the event of Brexit. According to polls, the vast majority of 3.4 million Welsh and Northern Ireland potential voters wish to be part of the EU. Polls indicate that young voters prefer to remain in the EU while older voters have swung to Brexit.
In a vigorous BBC debate on Tuesday, "Remain" and "Leave" representatives discussed three factors that voters should consider - trade and economy, immigration, and global geopolitical and defence issues.
On economy and trade, the EU single market allows the free movement of goods, services, capital and workers. From last year's trade statistics, Britain exported £223 billion (S$442 billion) to the other 27 EU member states, or 44 per cent of total exports. Imports from the EU totalled £291 billion, so the trade deficit was £68 billion. There are no tariffs for member nations within the EU, but rules and standards are enforced by the European Court of Justice.
The "Remain" camp thus contends that Britain is very dependent on trade with the rest of the EU, not only for goods but for services too. There are significant science and technology research arrangements that are funded by the EU. The UK would still have to apply EU rules to retain access to the single market. Moreover, the City of London, the financial sector which generates huge revenues for Britain, could lose business to Frankfurt and Paris in the event of Brexit.
Besides, the UK Treasury and Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warn that Brexit would cause an economic shock and growth would be slower. The fear is that Brexit would encourage French nationalists and other populist parties to seek referendums leading to a collapse of the union and creating uncertainty and recession. The euro, sterling and European markets have gyrated because of this fear.
On Wednesday, some 1,285 business leaders, or more than half of Britain's largest companies and medium and smaller businesses, said in a letter to The Times that Brexit would damage the UK economy. The companies employ 1.75 million people. Moreover, Britain has attracted considerable foreign direct investment as the investors wish to speak English and regard the nation as the "gateway to Europe".
Other business people, including James Dyson, the inventor and vacuum manufacturer, disagree, saying that trade will continue and British businesses and people "should regain control of our futures".
Brexit campaigners agree with Mr Dyson that UK companies would be freed from the burden of EU regulation that hampers business and causes unemployment. They fear that lack of democracy, bureaucracy, high salaries and expenses of Brussels fat cats have made the EU economy sclerotic.
The euro region in particular has caused depression in Greece while others are struggling. Brexit campaigners have added that trade with EU countries would continue because the UK imports more from EU nations than it exports to them. Britain would be able to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries. As the fifth largest economy in the world and the second largest in the EU, Britain should be confident that it will succeed as an independent economy, "leave" campaigners say.
The Brexit campaign has the upper hand on the immigration issue. EU citizens have the right to live and work in any member state. Since poorer eastern European nations have joined the EU, total net migration to the UK has surged to over 300,000 a year despite the government's target of cutting it to under 100,000. The most recent official figures put net migration from EU countries at 184,000 a year and non-EU at 188,000.
The "leave" camp says that it is impossible to control immigration as a member of the EU. Hospitals, schools and housing are burdened by the growing number of migrants and queues for services have risen. High immigration has also driven down wages for British workers, they claim. An Australian type points-based system for migrants to the UK should be extended to include those from the EU.
The "remain" camp says that immigrants, especially those from the EU, pay more in taxes than they take out and benefits for migrants will be limited for the first four years of their stay. Outside the EU, the UK would still have to accept free movement to gain full access to the single market.
Another key debate is the global role of Britain and defence. From mainly a common market, the EU's role in foreign affairs has grown.
The "remain" camp believes that the UK needs to be within the EU helping to take big decisions, not sitting on the sidelines. Leaving the EU would diminish Britain's influence on the world stage. Working with EU neighbours to tackle shared threats has helped keep Britain safer. Individual member states retain a veto on foreign policy proposals
The Brexit camp stresses that Nato and the UN Security Council are more important to Britain's defence than the EU. The fear is that the EU wants to set up its own army. Britain would continue to have global influence as an independent country.