On June 23rd, the people of the United Kingdom will decide via a historic election whether or not it will remain part of the European Union, a vote dubbed “Brexit.”
With concerns over things like immigration, economics and national identity fueling the issue, the sometimes-ugly debate has become a dialogue on the very essence of Britishness.
It's a debate even British expats, at least those who have been living outside the country for 15 years or less, get to weigh in on. In the Tampa Bay area, former U.K. residents are keeping a close eye on the outcome of the vote.
Like many hot-button topics in the U.S., the debate over Brexit — and some say U.K. voters are evenly split on it — shows a divide between two starkly different modes of thinking. The vote itself has been long in the making.
Separated by a mere 20 miles from the rest of mainland Europe and comprising England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the U.K. — the fifth largest economy in the world — has had a colorful and at times strained relationship with its continental neighbors, in part because of the military and economic powers the U.K. wield, as well as its relationship with the U.S.
When six countries formed the E.U. in 1951, the U.K. was not among the founders; it joined in 1967. When 19 European countries adopted the Euro as currency, the U.K. retained the pound.
The reluctance to become more engrained in the E.U. (and thus the desire to leave outright) comes from skepticism of a European "super state" managed by unelected bureaucrats based in Brussels. Some want greater control over tax dollars (the U.K. pays 350 million pounds a week to Brussels) as well as stronger control over its borders, given the strain the influx of migrants from strife-ridden areas of northern Africa and the Middle East has had on resources. Leaving would also free the U.K. from regulations some see as onerous, and result in greater autonomy in trade.
Thursday's vote stems from a promise Prime Minister David Cameron made, though Cameron himself wants to stay in.
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have also rallied for the country to stay a part of the E.U.
Their concerns about leaving are largely economic: millions of jobs are tied to trade with the E.U., and many jobs would be lost, say those advocating remaining. The pound would fall, and the U.K. would lose its say on climate change and trade regulations as well as the economy and security.
For local expats, the jury is out.
Recent transplant Joshua Ashby-Young, a 24-year-old London native, recently moved to St Petersburg and is a small business owner.
Polls show the younger voters are leaning towards staying in, but Ashby-Young says that's not what he's hearing.
“Having been over in the U.K. recently, I get the impression that we'll vote to leave the EU,” Ashby-Young said. “Just like [in] the general elections, I think polling and media opinions don't represent the actual views of the public."
He said he supports leaving, largely because of the migration crisis that's impacting the entire continent as people from countries like Syria flee violent circumstances for Europe.
"I look at the whole E.U. issue and see how it affects me directly," Ashby-Young. "If we can't even build enough houses to cope with the current levels of migration, how are first-time buyers supposed to get on the housing ladder? I believe that on polling day people will vote on what affects them, the fact that traffic is increasing, commute times to work are getting longer, people can't [get] places in schools or appointments with doctors. ”
At British-owned Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a South Tampa pub, another London native, 47-year-old Hugo Morley, and godson of famous English author Noel Coward, offers a different view.
“My view is definitely to stay in, but I’m pretty sure anybody that lives abroad would say that," said Morley, who visited England over the holidays. "It seems a bit much for us to enjoy the rest of the world but not for them to enjoy us, I mean that’s one part of it, the traveling and that we’re welcomed into other places.”
And while those in favor of leaving cite security as a concern, 45-year-old Brit Steve Hindle, head of security at the Sykes building in downtown Tampa (also known as the "beer can building") for the past three years, said staying in could actually help keep the country safe.
“As someone who works in security I believe we are stronger in, sharing intelligence and information across Europe is vital to our safety,” Hindle said. “However, I also recognize that we are an island and that makes us somewhat unique and that fact alone has saved us from invasion at various points in our past, but I believe we have a better chance of reforming the E.U. if [we] were in. I believe we’re stronger together.”
Morley believes that, much like the U.S. appears to be over its presidential frontrunners, the U.K. is split over Brexit. And much like the bitterly divided political climate in the U.S. makes it tough to pass meaningful laws, the divide over Brexit — if it were to pass — could make it hard to execute.
“It seems split almost directly down the middle, I think it could go either way," Morley said. "It seems that no one knows what’s going to happen with the result either way. How are they going to do it? How are they going to pull out? It’s going to take years."
Contributor Gareth Kelly, himself a British expat, is a freelance writer living in Tampa. Find him on Twitter at @garethckelly. Image courtesy https://speedpropertybuyers.co.uk/.