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Britons Most at Risk in a Messy Split From EU Are Least Worried

Angus Dobson said he is prepared for the British economy to slump if it means breaking decisively with the European Union, an institution he views as distant, interfering and unaccountable to voters.

“For me, it was all about sovereignty,” said the 43-year-old biology teacher, referring to 2016’s Brexit referendum. “What we will gain by coming out of the EU long term is worth the economic downturn.”

Fifty-nine percent of voters here in England’s West Midlands opted leave the EU in the referendum, the largest pro-leave margin among the U.K.’s 12 regions. With the U.K.’s scheduled departure approaching on March 29, they are eager for the country’s politicians to finish the job.

Prime Minister Theresa May is widely expected to lose a critical vote on her Brexit plan in Parliament on Tuesday, throwing the course of Britain’s EU withdrawal into doubt. That would open the possibility that the U.K. leaves the bloc without an agreement on legal and economic ties, raising the prospect of widespread disruption to business and travel.

Such forecasts are met with skepticism in industrial centers like the West Midlands, even though the economic risks there are greater.

Long and delicate supply chains link many of this region’s factories to the wider European economy. Several studies have suggested this and other Brexit-supporting regions could face an outsize hit if Brexit goes awry, reflecting the proportion of the local economy geared toward tariff-free, unfettered trade with the EU.

One analysis by the University of Sussex estimated that even a smooth and orderly Brexit could cost the West Midlands around 30,000 jobs, or 1.2% of those employed. A sudden and disorderly wrench — a real possibility if lawmakers can’t bury their differences — could cost the area twice that number. Employment in Tamworth, an ancient town of 80,000 where 67% of voters cast their ballots for Brexit, could shrink by 4%, according to the Sussex analysis.

The threat is consistent across the country. Pro-Brexit Copeland, in England’s northwest, is a hub for nuclear fuel-processing, a niche corner of British industry tightly wrapped up in the EU’s heavily-regulated nuclear sector. The Sussex analysis found that Copeland could lose 10% of its manufacturing jobs if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal covering its future ties to the bloc, or 5% of employment overall. A similar fate could befall aircraft workers in Fylde and auto-industry workers in Stratford-upon-Avon. Both cities voted to leave the EU.

The economic risks around Brexit spook people in Tamworth who voted in favor of remaining in the EU.

George Greenaway, head brewer at craft ale producer Tamworth Brewing Co., said he is concerned that demand for his beers might be dented if his customers feel the pinch from Brexit.

Louise Buckland, 40, a palliative-care nurse, said she frets about whether her patients will get easy access to the essential drugs they need if Brexit gums up ports and disrupts imports. She voted remain in 2016’s referendum, and believes Brexit is a distraction from problems such as poverty and health care.

“Being in the EU wasn’t one of the things that needed to be dealt with urgently,” she said.

Most voters featured in this article were members of two panels convened for The Wall Street Journal by Kantar Public, a policy research unit of advertising giant WPP PLC, selected to reflect a mix of age, gender social group.

Tamworth has a rich history: Its local council proclaims the town has been “open for business since the seventh century.” A 12th-century castle squats above its central shopping district. A factory in the town produced the quirky three-wheeled Reliant Robin motor car until it closed in 2001.

Around half the town’s residents commute to offices and factories Birmingham and other big towns in the West Midlands, said Daniel Cook, leader of the local council. Big employers nearby include a car plant operated by Jaguar Land Rover, a unit of India’s Tata Motors Ltd., and German automotive parts maker Fritz Dräxlmaier Holding GmbH.

For many Brexit supporters here, immigration, legal control and sovereignty are more important than the economy, a trend reflected in nationwide opinion polls. A January survey of 1,688 adults by YouGov PLC found “leave” voters were less concerned than “remain” voters about higher inflation and unemployment or declining national income as a consequence of Brexit.

Laura Green, 21, a trainee math teacher from nearby Sutton Coldfield, said she voted for Brexit because she was concerned about unchecked immigration from the EU and believes the U.K. needs to refocus on supporting its native poor and vulnerable.

“The U.K. needs to accommodate its citizens first,” she said. She added she and some classmates at university weighed the economic evidence for and against staying in the EU and found it inconclusive.

Paul Shrimpton, 61, a business consultant who voted to leave the EU, accepts the tradeoff of some economic disruption. But he said he thinks any turbulence would be temporary, and that the government should use the GBP39 billion ($50 billion) it has earmarked for the EU as part of Mrs. May’s withdrawal package to offset the worst of the pain if there’s an abrupt break.

“I think the U.K.’s economy is reasonably robust,” he said. “I believe the U.K. spirit is there and it will just motor on.”

Fearful of the risks around a no-deal exit, some lawmakers advocate a second referendum to break the impasse in Parliament.

But even among pro-EU voters in Tamworth, there’s little appetite for such a vote.

Altaf Sarwar, 45, who organizes touring comedy shows, said the U.K. has made its decision and it needs to see it through.

“If you’ve done the crime, you need to do the time,” he said.
Source: Dow Jones

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