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The UK’s EU referendum

A referendum is being held on Thursday, 23 June to decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union.

What is a referendum?

A referendum is basically a vote in which everyone of voting age can take part, normally giving a “Yes” or “No” answer to a question. Whichever side gets more than half of all votes cast is considered to have won.

Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold one if he won the 2015 general election, in response to growing calls from his own Conservative MPs and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who argued that Britain had not had a say since 1975, when it voted to stay in the EU in a referendum. The EU has changed a lot since then, gaining more control over our daily lives, they argued. Mr Cameron said: “It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics.”

What is the European Union?

The European Union – often known as the EU – is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries. It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together are more likely to avoid going to war with each other. It has since grown to become a “single market” allowing goods and people to move around, basically as if the member states were one country. It has its own currency, the euro, which is used by 19 of the member countries, its own parliament and it now sets rules in a wide range of areas – including on the environment, transport, consumer rights and even things like mobile phone charges.

What does Brexit mean?

It is a word that has become used as a shorthand way of saying the UK leaving the EU – merging the words Britain and exit to get Brexit, in a same way as a Greek exit from the EU was dubbed Grexit in the past.

Who will be able to vote?

British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK, along with UK nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register in the UK in the past 15 years. Members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will also be eligible, unlike in a general election. Citizens from EU countries – apart from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus – will not get a vote.

How do you vote?

It will be a similar system to that during other elections. Firstly, if you have registered to vote, you’ll be sent a card telling you when voting takes place and where you should go to vote on 23 June. On that day, when you go to the polling station you will be given a piece of paper with the referendum question on it. You then go to a booth, which will have a pencil in it for your use. You then put a X in the box which reflects your choice and put the paper into a ballot box. Alternatively you will also be able to opt to vote by post.

The main points of the deal are:

  • Child benefit – Migrant workers will still be able to send child benefit payments back to to their home country – Mr Cameron had wanted to end this practice – but the payments will be set at a level reflecting the cost of living in their home country rather than the full UK rate
  • Migrant welfare payments – Mr Cameron says cutting the amount of benefits low paid workers from other EU nations can claim when they take a job in the UK will remove one of the reasons people come to Britain in such large numbers (critics say it will make little difference). He did not get the blanket ban he wanted. New arrivals will not be able to claim tax credits and other welfare payments straight away – but will gradually gain the right to more benefits the longer they stay, at a rate yet to be decided.
  • Keeping the pound – Mr Cameron has said Britain will never join the euro. He secured assurances that the eurozone countries will not discriminate against Britain for having a different currency. Any British money spent on bailing out eurozone nations that get into trouble will also be reimbursed.
  • Protection for the City of London – Safeguards for Britain’s large financial services industry to prevent eurozone regulations being imposed on it
  • Running its own affairs – For the first time, there will be a clear commitment that Britain is not part of a move towards “ever closer union” with other EU member states – one of the core principles of the EU. This will be incorporated in an EU treaty change. Mr Cameron also secured a “red card” system for national parliaments making it easier for governments to band together to block unwanted legislation. If 55% of national EU parliaments object to a piece of EU legislation it will be rethought. Critics say it is not clear if this would ever be used in practice.

Who wants the UK to leave the EU?

The British public are fairly evenly split, according to the latest opinion polls. The UK Independence Party, which won the last European elections, and received nearly four million votes – 13% of those cast – in May’s general election, campaigns for Britain’s exit from the EU. About half of Conservative MPs, including five cabinet ministers, several Labour MPs and the DUP are also in favour of leaving.

Why do they want the UK to leave?

They believe Britain is being held back by the EU, which they say imposes too many rules on business and charges billions of pounds a year in membership fees for little in return. They also want Britain to take back full control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming here to live and/or work. One of the main principles of EU membership is “free movement”, which means you don’t need to get a visa to go and live in another EU country. They also object to the idea of “ever closer union” and what they see as moves towards the creation of a “United States of Europe”.

Who wants the UK to stay in the EU?

Prime Minister David Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU, now he has got some powers back from it. Sixteen members of his cabinet also back staying in. The Conservative Party has pledged to be neutral in the campaign – but the Labour Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems are all in favour of staying in. US president Barack Obama also wants Britain to remain in the EU, as do other EU nations such as France and Germany. As mentioned above, according to polls, the British public seems pretty evenly split on the issue.

Why do they want the UK to stay?

Those campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU say it gets a big boost from membership – it makes selling things to other EU countries easier and, they argue, the flow of immigrants, most of whom are young and keen to work, fuels economic growth and helps pay for public services. They also believe Britain’s status in the world would be damaged by leaving and that we are more secure as part of the 28 nation club, rather than going it alone.

If the UK left the EU would UK citizens need special permits to work in the EU?

Lots of people asked about this. A lot would depend on the kind of deal the UK agreed with the EU after exit. If it remained within the single market, it would almost certainly retain free movement rights allowing UK citizens to work in the EU and vice versa. If the government opted to impose work permit restrictions, as UKIP wants, then other countries could reciprocate, meaning Britons would have to apply for visas to work.

If I retire to Spain or another EU country will my healthcare costs still be covered?

At the moment, the large British expat community in Spain gets free access to Spanish GPs and their hospital treatment is paid for by the NHS. After they become permanent residents Spain pays for their hospital treatment. Similar arrangements are in place with other EU countries.

If Britain leaves the EU but remains in the single market, or the European Economic Area as it is known, it might be able to continue with this arrangement,according to a House of Commons library research note. If Britain has to negotiate trade deals with individual member states, it may opt to continue paying for expats’ healthcare through the NHS or decide that they would have to cover their own costs if they continue to live abroad, if the country where they live declines to do so.

Will our EHIC cards still be valid?

No-one knows for definite. The EHIC card – which entitles travellers to state-provided medical help for any condition or injury that requires urgent treatment, in any other country within the EU, as well as several non-EU countries – is not an EU initiative. It was negotiated between countries within a group known as the European Economic Area, often simply referred to as the single market (plus Switzerland, which confusingly is not a member of the EEA, but has agreed access to the single market). Therefore, the future of Britons’ EHIC cover could depend on whether the UK decided to sever ties with the EEA in the event of a leave vote.

Will I still be able to use my passport?

It is a British document – there is no such thing as an EU passport, so whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU your passport will stay the same. In theory, the government could, if it wanted, decide to change the colour, which is currently standardised for EU countries.

Member countries of the EU (year of entry)

The European Union has 28 member countries:

Austria (1995) Italy (1958)
Belgium (1958) Latvia (2004)
Bulgaria (2007) Lithuania (2004)
Croatia (2013) Luxembourg (1958)
Bulgaria (2007) Lithuania (2004)
Cyprus (2004) Malta (2004)
Czech Republic (2004) Netherlands (1958)
Denmark (1973) Poland (2004)
Estonia (2004) Portugal (1986)
Finland (1995) Romania (2007)
France (1958) Slovakia (2004)
Germany (1958) Slovenia (2004)
Greece (1981) Spain (1986)
Hungary (2004) Sweden (1995)
Ireland (1973) United Kingdom (1973)

On the road to EU membership:

Albania Serbia
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Turkey

Potential candidates

Bosnia and Herzegovina Kosovo

source: BBC News

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