LOWESTOFT, England (Reuters) - Tempers flared and insults flew, but after more than an hour of opposing ‘facts’, a few scare stories and the odd saucy joke, the vote was in - 82 percent of people were in favor of Britain quitting the European Union.
The ‘out’ campaign had won over three dozen waverers - a third of the 105-strong audience - in the Livingstones pub in rural eastern England. It was one of the first dry runs of a debate that will be waged up and down Britain before a referendum on whether to stay in the 28-member bloc.
Before the end of 2017, the outcome of the hard fought vote will determine not only Britain’s future role in world trade and affairs, but also shape the European Union, which has struggled to maintain unity over migration and financial crises.
If the debate near Lowestoft, a down-on-its-luck fishing community, is anything to go by, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron faces a battle to persuade Britons to stay in the EU even if he secures the reforms he has promised.
It’s something Laura Sandys, a pro-Europe former Conservative lawmaker, is keenly aware of. The Conservative party itself is deeply split over the issue. During the debate, in the backroom of the pub in Kessingland, she found only muted support for her arguments of why Britain benefits from EU membership.
“The issue that we’ve got is that those people who are anti are much more motivated than those people who are pro,” said Sandys, chair of the European Movement UK, a lobby group that sees Britain’s future inside the European Union, working in partnership with other EU members.
“At the moment, they are more vocal. But I think an anti is always a stronger emotion, while a pro..is a stronger message.”
At the debate, her arguments that, inside the EU, Britain could shape policy, that workers’ rights were protected and that membership had created jobs were mostly met with sighs.
One woman whispered to her neighbor: “She lives in a different world to what we do.” One man took aim at her plea for people to think of their children and grandchildren’s future. “That’s why we are here tonight,” he said.
There was muted applause.
Sandys was always at a disadvantage - the majority of the mostly silver-haired men and women were convinced that Britain was better off out of the EU long before the debate began.
But the ease with which the ‘out’ campaign’s arguments convinced the 11 percent of undecideds and some who started out backing Britain’s EU membership is a warning to the ‘in’ campaign. It may struggle to sell its message that Britons should be happy with the status quo.
Opinion polls suggest that fewer people are backing their arguments, put off by how the European Union has dealt with the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing war, repression and poverty but also swayed by appeals to ‘Britishness’ and a chance to regain importance lost with the demise of the empire.
This month, Ipsos MORI research group showed 52 percent of Britons would vote to stay in the EU, down from a record 61 percent in June.
Support for a British exit rose to 39 percent, the highest level since 2012, up from 27 percent in June. That more than halves the “in” lead to 13 percentage points from 34 points in June.
There have also been questions about how the ‘in’ campaign - called “Britain Stronger in Europe” - has managed its launch this month in a fashionable former brewery in Shoreditch, home of the so-called ‘hipsters’ of east London.
Headed by Stuart Rose, a former boss of the quintessentially British retailer Marks & Spencer, the movement has been alternately criticized for not appealing to the ‘youth’ vote and for putting its faith in establishment figures.
Some ministers close to Cameron’s position that Britain should stay in the European Union fear the ‘in’ campaign could lose support if it deploys big business to influence voters with warnings that their jobs could be in danger.
It also needs to stir up the middle class whose travel aspirations mean they are more likely to want to stay than the older population, they say.
Both sides are using a blizzard of figures to bolster their arguments, mostly focusing on the cost of staying in, or leaving the European Union. But most people say they will vote with their instinct, not on the basis of economic arguments.
Britain has far closer trade and investment ties with the European Union than with the United States.
Data from the Office of National Statistics showed that Britain exported almost 148 billion pounds in goods to the European Union in 2014, for example, compared with just over 37 billion pounds to the United States.
According to its closing position at the end of 2012, direct investment in Britain by EU countries amounted to 593 billion pounds, compared 356 billion pounds by the United States.
“You have to be really, really clear that this is irreversible that there is only one out and not one way back and that it is going to be fundamentally disruptive whether you are pro or against. Nobody says that it’s not going to be 10 years of upheaval and insecurity,” Sandys said.
For Geoff Lazell, 67, who used to run a chilled goods delivery business, the ‘in’ campaign offers little more than scaremongering. “It’s downright lies,” he said.
Once a member of the local Conservative association, he changed allegiance to the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party when Cameron was elected Conservative leader. Lazell, like many of Britain’s older generation, is strident in his belief that the country should never have joined the European Union.
He voted against membership at the last referendum in 1975 and says he will do so this time.
Most of those drinking pints after the debate agree that the money Britain pays toward the EU budget would be better spent on schools, hospitals and roads. They blame migrants for the strain on essential services.
According to Britain’s independent budget forecasters, Britain made a net contribution of 9.1 billion pounds to the EU in the 2014/15 tax year, which will rise to 10.4 billion this financial year - about 0.5 percent of gross domestic product.
“It should be Britain first and if there’s money left over then we can help others,” said Joanne Guthrie, 43, a former supermarket manager now living on state benefits due to ill health.
The ‘out’ campaign is well aware that the migrant crisis in Europe has played in its favor. It is also wary of being accused of racism or callousness.
But at the debate, the idea that Turkey could one day become a member of the European Union was a potent refrain.
Patrick O’Flynn, a member of the European Parliament for anti-EU UKIP, warned the receptive crowd that 75 million Turks could soon have the right to live in Britain.
“And of course Turkey will one day be joining the EU ... so with freedom of movement they will have the absolute right to come and live in Britain,” said O’Flynn. “Effectively our external border will become the border with Syria.”
Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and David Miliken, editing by Kate Holton and Janet McBride