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Repercussions Will Follow If Britain Leaves E.U., Former MP Says


The United Kingdom - an island nation, let's not forget - has never felt entirely at home in Europe. This summer, Britain will have a referendum on whether to pull out of the European Union, what's called the Brexit. Ed Balls is a former member of the British House of Commons who wants the U.K. to stay in the EU. Welcome to the program.

ED BALLS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Today in Brussels, EU leaders will be voting on a package of reforms that British Prime Minister David Cameron hopes will keep the United Kingdom in the European Union. Briefly tell us, why is the EU unpopular with the British public? It's been in it for years.

BALLS: Britain was late to join the European Union back the 1970s. The British public has always been equivocal about whether they really wanted to be part of it. It's been made worse because of the single currency doing so badly in Europe, which we've seen as a nonmember across the channel. It's made worse because there's been such a huge movement of people within the European Union into Britain from Eastern Europe and also the refugee crisis, which has destabilized communities and made people very skeptical about our membership. And then, of course, there's a political dimension.

MONTAGNE: Some of that is pretty compelling (laughter). Why do you think the U.K. is better off staying in the EU?

BALLS: If we were to walk away from the European Union entirely, we'd be walking away from a big economic market where, let's be honest, American and Japanese and Chinese companies invest in Britain so they can sell their goods to Spain, to Germany, to France. That's where I say stay in but not stay in because of the status quo. Things do need to change.

MONTAGNE: This reform package that Cameron is hoping will satisfy the British public, what are the key things he's offering?

BALLS: The most controversial issue is the movement of workers from Eastern Europe to Britain. David Cameron wanted to have actual controls on the numbers who could come. There's no appetite yet amongst European leaders for that. The second issue is he wants it to be clear that if the Europe area, the single currency, makes decisions about financial regulation, Britain will still have a say, even though we're not a member. And they won't be able to make decisions which make things harder for the city of London and for financial companies based in Britain. Again, that is quite controversial, particularly with the French government who say, well, look, if you're not in the single currency, we make the rules, not you.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what do you think will happen come this June when British citizens vote on whether to stay in the European Union?

BALLS: Well, look, the polls are very tight, but I think the stay in campaign will win the day, but that is not going to be the end of the story. Whatever happens in June - and I think we'll stay in - this issue is going to continue to divide Britain's relationship with Europe for the next 10 years unless we get some big changes and Europe does better. I think the question of whether Britain will stay in or finally leave will be a live issue for the years to come.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

BALLS: A pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Ed Balls is a former cabinet minister and chief economic adviser to the British Treasury. He is currently a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.