AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And our colleague Robert Siegel is in London today to tell us why we need to know the word everyone's been talking about there this week - Brexit.
ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Brexit.
CORNISH: Brexit. It seems like just about everyone has an opinion on whether Britain should leave the EU. And Robert, you've been talking to people. We're going to hear some of your reporting in a moment.
CORNISH: But help us understand first what this decision means for the U.S.
SIEGEL: Yeah. A Brexit - a British exit from the European Union would take the world's fifth largest economy - that of the United Kingdom - and pull it out of a 500 million person market - the EU - which has been steadily growing for decades. It would introduce an element of uncertainty. Hardly anyone can predict what would happen.
George Soros the financier says today it would knock 15 or 20 percent off the value of the pound and knock down British incomes. It would introduce uncertainty, and for American companies that invest here, the game would change. They're here not just to sell to 70 million Brits but to be part of the huge EU that Britain might conceivably leave.
CORNISH: There's this massive campaign - right? - pushing to leave the EU. Who's in it?
SIEGEL: Well, there are nationalists. The UK Independence Party is very much in favor of leaving. Many members of the Conservative Party have been Euroskeptics, as they say, ever since the 1970s when Britain first joined what was then called the Common Market. And there are ordinary folks who just think that Britain is giving away too much of its sovereignty to this Brussels-based super-national organization.
Yesterday I went to a stronghold of the leave campaign to hear what some of its complaints are. I was at the formidable border that has long kept England separate from Europe, the English Channel.
On a gray day at the beach Dumpton Gap in the coastal town of Broadstairs, the waves were choppy, and Martin Taylor-Smith, British soldier turned high tech executive turned activist for the leave campaign, was pointing to the unseen land 20 miles off in the distance.
MARTIN TAYLOR-SMITH: Well, if it was a little bit brighter today, you would be able to see the coast of France and Belgium. A long may there be the water between the two of us (laughter).
SIEGEL: This is the cherished barrier between England and the continent, right?
TAYLOR-SMITH: Absolutely right. The Normans were the last ones to successfully come over this a little while backing anyway - 1066.
SIEGEL: Broadstairs is a beach town. It's where Charles Dickens spent his summers. Nowadays it is festooned with leave signs. Martin Taylor-Smith drove me around town and told me about the leave campaign that he's coordinating in this part of the county of Kent. At least he tried to tell me when he wasn't interrupted by phone calls.
TAYLOR-SMITH: Sorry. Excuse me. Hello.
SIEGEL: Volunteers in need of more campaign brochures.
TAYLOR-SMITH: Yeah, I've got more. Let me say that we're expecting more leaflets in tomorrow. I promise I'll contact you as soon as they come in - but appreciate all the efforts - well done.
SIEGEL: As a young man in the 1970s, Taylor-Smith says he was pro-Europe.
TAYLOR-SMITH: When I was 18 or so, I was part of a campaign to get us in, as was Margaret Thatcher.
SIEGEL: But over the years, his enthusiasm waned as the free trading area evolved into a stronger European Union.
TAYLOR-SMITH: And that's not what we joined. And that's what this is all about. It's our ability as a sovereign nation to manage our own destiny as opposed to being run from a clique in Brussels.
SIEGEL: The idea that Britain has gotten caught up in something undemocratic, something unresponsive to its people's needs and demands is central to the leave campaign. I wondered if there'd been any particular moment when Martin Taylor-Smith had lost faith in the European Union, and he told me it was when he was still in the army in the early 1990s.
TAYLOR-SMITH: When the Balkans crisis was going on and there was genocide going on in terms of massacres of Muslims, et cetera, the EU were inactive for two years. They did nothing. They couldn't get consensus, and it was only when the U.S. and NATO, in particular the U.K., started bombing and going in that in fact the thing was brought to a head.
SIEGEL: In more recent years, he has seen EU migration to the U.K. boom. Citizens of EU member nations can live and work anywhere in the European Union. They have come to Kent largely from East European countries - Poland Romania, Latvia - to do handiwork, to pick asparagus, to work in factories. Their numbers have exceeded the prime minister's targets.
TAYLOR-SMITH: And the fact that Cameron, having said he wanted to get it down to the tens of thousands and in the last seven to eight years has not been able to get it below hundreds of thousands...
SIEGEL: Taylor-Smith has an impressively long list of committed voters, people who have told canvassers that they are prepared to vote to leave the EU. So he was a bit surprised when we visited the proprietor of his favorite pub Four Candles.
MIKE BEAUMONT: So we'll put on three of our beers - want to try one?
SIEGEL: Well, you talked me into it.
SIEGEL: Mike Beaumont owns this hole in the wall which he proudly calls the U.K.'s smallest microbrewery pub. He is a transplanted Scotsman, a former London journalist and, to Taylor-Smith's surprise...
BEAUMONT: I am - yeah, at the risk of upsetting Martin, I'm a remainer.
SIEGEL: Is your household unanimous on this, or...
BEAUMONT: No, my wife is a leaver.
SIEGEL: She's a leaver.
BEAUMONT: Yeah. My wife's Chinese, and she thinks (laughter) there are too many foreign people here, which is hilarious. I don't know, just...
SIEGEL: Well, that says something for the degree of integration of some immigrants (inaudible).
BEAUMONT: Yeah, well, that's right. She says oh, there are too many people here already. And I said, well, you're Chinese. How can you talk about too many people? Seventy million people - that's a village out there.
SIEGEL: And while Beaumont is a remainer, it's a lesser-of-evils choice for him. He doesn't deny the EU's flaws.
BEAUMONT: No one is passionately saying, we must remain otherwise everything's going to be terrible. It - no one feels that it's perfect by any stretch of imagination, but I think we have to change it from the inside.
SIEGEL: The leave advocates blame EU policies for the various economic woes in Kent - the decline of British fishing, the departure of a big Pfizer research center. And many small business owners complain about the big, eager-to-regulate bureaucracy far away just as they do in the U.S. One local leave advocate I met runs a small manufacturing firm in the nearby town of Sandwich.
The British Hovercraft Company has just 15 employees, most of them Brits. But there are a couple from Poland. Emma Pullen is the managing director of this company which her father-in-law started.
EMMA PULLEN: So this is our main hovercraft factory, and in here, we have - just about everything goes on in here, whether it be spraying of the hulls, laying up the glass fiber, fitting the wiring and the engines, et cetera. And then we do the initial test flights in here as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE IGNITION)
SIEGEL: These are small hovercrafts that are used for recreation, sometimes for search and rescue. This one is a black and red two-seater. It lifts a foot or so off the factory floor.
This is a small business. They tell me that in a good year, they sell a hundred of these all-terrain vehicles that glide on a cushion of air. In a bad year, they sell 60. Emma Pullen has several complaints with the EU. She says she has problems with uncontrolled immigration from EU member countries.
PULLEN: I do have Polish guys working for me. That of which, I don't have an issue.
SIEGEL: Because they're skilled laminators. She says it should be special skills that get immigrants in, not their country of origin.
PULLEN: You know, there are very talented people all over the world, and everyone should have a fair crack of the whip to come to the U.K. if they want to from whichever country you're from.
SIEGEL: She also cites reasons for leaving the EU that are drawn from her own business experience. Hovercrafts don't get the same European safety certification as boats and jet skis. She says that makes them harder to register in EU countries.
PULLEN: If we're a larger company and if we we're employing thousands of people, we may have had more sway.
SIEGEL: Instead, Poland says, the regulation knocks her out of the European market. Outside Europe, she says she's had potential buyers from countries with which the EU has no trade agreements. So stiff tariffs are applied, and her products are priced out of those markets.
PULLEN: I had an inquiry from India for a hovercraft, and they wanted to buy one of our coastal pros, which is like this orange a blue one you see here.
SIEGEL: Oh, beauty.
PULLEN: It's very pretty, this one - 20,000 pounds when it leaves the U.K. By the time it got to India, it was 39,000 pounds including all of the taxes and the duties, et cetera, when they got in.
SIEGEL: That India would impose on this.
PULLEN: That India would impose.
SIEGEL: Similarly, a deal fell through with Brazil - no trade agreement there either.
PULLEN: And the EU has been negotiating with Brazil for 17 years now.
SIEGEL: I pointed out to Emma Pullen that if Britain negotiated trade agreements with those countries, she might get a break on tariffs, but she might not. Or more Indian and Brazilian exports might enter the U.K. and harm other British businesses. Well, she says she prefers any deal negotiated by the British for the British to one negotiated by people she says have nothing to do with her country.
And at that point, her complaints about the fine print regulations from Brussels and the trade policy failures and omissions all fade into a passionate nationalistic statement of the urge to quit the European Union.
PULLEN: I don't want to be European. I want to be British. I love my country, and I'm very proud to be British. And I don't ever want to lose that pride, and it does massively worry me that being in the EU stops us from having the pride in our country that we should have.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow we'll hear the voices of some British voters who feel otherwise and who say they will vote on Thursday to remain in the European Union. This is Robert Siegel reporting this week from London.
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