With a week left to go before the referendum, I thought I’d post my thoughts about it. Despite my reservations about having a referendum in the first place, when it was made for-certain that a referendum on our membership of the EU would happen I thought that it would be a chance for the UK to have a much-needed education about the EU. But this does not seem to be what is happening, and the Leave campaign does not want people to be educated about the EU.
For me, I don’t need any convincing that Britain must remain a member of the European Union. The European Union is by far the most ambitious international project in history. In a world where pragmatism trumps idealism, the fact that such an organisation has been able to marry idealistic ambition with ruthless pragmatism is a great credit to the nations of Europe.
With all of the contradictory and confusing messages that are coming from both sides of the debate, it is understandable that navigating the debate is difficult. There is simply not the time to educate the public at large about this topic. Successive governments have avoided it. They have only spoken of the EU only in negatives, whereby any failed ambition is the fault of Brussels.
With all the negativity towards Brussels in the British Press throughout history, it’s hard for many to take The Remain Campaign’s message seriously. It has quite successfully been branded as ‘Project Fear’ by its opponents. But this is not without foundation. The economic and social consequences of a Brexit would be massive; the enormous risk that leaving will place on the continent should only be met with disengagement by the rest of the world. And, judging by the reaction of currency speculators, the prospect of a Brexit is not something they are taking lightly: markets like certainty.
Rousing fear in the British public to his ends is not something Cameron’s unfamiliar with. In 2014, during the Scottish Referendum, ‘Project Fear’ was used to great effect and Cameron saw the result he wanted. Similar tactics were used in the General Election in 2015 and resulted in the first Conservative majority in the House of Commons since 1992. Now it is the turn of the EU referendum to receive the David Cameron treatment.
Withdrawing from the EU, in David Cameron’s view, “would be needless and reckless” and “an act of economic and political self-harm”. However, the way that the Prime Minister speaks about the case to remain begs the question: What kind of responsible head of Government would risk something so apparently important in a referendum?
It’s not just the Remain side that has this problem. The Leave campaign has also been accused of being the “real project fear”: from spurious claims that everyone from Turkey are going to turn up in the UK the moment they accede to the EU to claims that the EU is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
Wonderfully spelled out by Nick Cohen in The Guardian, the Brexiteers love nothing more than a good conspiracy. Having lost the economic argument and a notable lack of backing from the international community, the Leave Campaign has turned to an incredibly dangerous and damaging line of argumentation on immigration. This will doubtlessly cause lasting scars for the communities across the UK.
Meet ‘Project Confusion’
Where the Brexiteers are not making an immigration argument, they have employed what is probably best described as ‘Project Confusion’. It’s quite a simple tactic and takes advantage of the fact that politics is quite esoteric, especially the EU. The aim of this strategy is to make sure that the British never learn anything about the European Union and maintain and bolster the view that the EU is an out-of-touch institution in far-flung Brussels which makes decisions… somehow!
It should come as no surprise that politicians stretch the truth beyond recognition. So how does this differ from a General Election?
In a General Election you don’t get the same fundamental obfuscation of how the system works. There is a deliberate attempt to stop the British public from understanding the EU and the rationality of its existence.
Most notable is the claim of the number of laws that the EU creates on our behalf; as if the UK has no control over anything. This number can shift wildly depending on what you’re counting: Is it just regulations, which are transposed directly? Or would you include Directives, which are up to the government to decide how to achieve and the number of legislative acts it will pass in order to achieve the targets?
The point about the number and proportion of the laws just confuses things. And this is probably deliberate on the Leave side of the debate, because talking about the quantity rather than the quality of the laws produced serves to advance a game of raw-numbers.
Obscuring the Logic of the European Union
To illustrate the advantage of the EU, I’ll take the Blood Transfusion Directive as an example. The Directive aims to regularise the quality and safety of blood used for transfusions, which guarantees that if you need a blood transfusion in another member state you can be confident that it’s not going to kill you.
Most people would have very little objection to this sort of standardisation.
But, why does the EU have to do it? Why can’t states just agree to do this?
Things like this do happen: you have agreements like the International Labour Organisation Conventions, the Protocols of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Geneva Conventions. All have produced wonderful initiatives that its signatories are enthusiastic about at the negotiations. However, there is little in the way of enforcement (especially for the ILO Conventions and the UNFCCC Protocols) and these take a long time to negotiate for relatively few gains. And even their successes are marred by failure.
The EU is a fully functioning institution that is ready to do similar things for its 28 Member states on a range of topics, which are legally binding and enforceable. It has a fully functioning, albeit quite small, civil service and (crucially) democratic accountability. Something which other international organisations lack.
The European Union is not an expensive monolith
But, while the EU may produce a lot of laws, it is limited in scope and in what it’s charged to do by its Member States. Yes, the European Parliament produces a whole host of resolutions and reports from the one on the Armenian Genocide to innovation and diversification of small-scale fishing in fisheries-dependent regions. However, the EU is limited by what it can do in its treaties, which means that it can only produce laws regarding environmental protection, international trade, fisheries conservation, agriculture, workers’ rights, consumer laws and common technical standards. Even here it has its limits.
To be an effective servant of its Member States, the EU – like every other international organisation – requires funding. Both in terms of administration, but way more crucially and numerically more importantly, it needs the means to carry out its duties and programmes.
The Leave campaign has notably jumped onto the argument that the UK sends £50million to the EU per day, a claim that has been thoroughly debunked; it actually costs the individual between £80 and £110 per year. The economic gain is estimated by the CBI to be about £3000 per family per year.
Another perspective to consider is that the entire EU budget is just 1% of GDP, while the UK government gets 40% of GDP. Which works out that the UK Treasury gets around 5 times the amount of money that the EU receives to carry out its agenda. The EU is, in sum, great value for money!
The Referendum is a massive risk and a waste of time
Euroscepticism in the UK is strongest in those who believe that the European Union is a great conspiracy. And indeed that is where most of the euroscepticism lay for a long while. These people are often likely to believe other conspiracy theories and were often side-lined and regarded as holding a marginal position. While the Brexit group have the backing of most of the major right-wing newspapers, in order to grow into something more credible, they have recruited mainstream politicians to the cause. What’s left is drumming up support from the general public; those who are less likely to buy into conspiracies and marginal ideas.
The tactic by the Leave campaign seems to be: misrepresent the truth, highlight the costs, ignore the benefits and shamelessly contradict the claims of the other side. For example, the Leave campaign, despite being backed by some of the most right-wing and free-market oriented people in British Politics, claim that EU funds will be maintained until 2020 and that the NHS will be better funded outside the EU.
The Remain campaign is quite right to be warning people of the massive dangers that Brexit poses. As one blogger has put it: “Project fear is a fitting name, you should be fucking terrified”. However, when you have a Leave campaign that appeals to a UK Media who are predominately anti-European, combined with shameless denial of anything the Remain campaign says, you have a recipe for a strong Leave campaign. The hope is to sew enough doubt in people’s minds to stop them from voting.
Keeping a low turnout is essential for Vote Leave. The polling company YouGov has demonstrated that ‘Leave’ voters are more likely to turnout to vote than their ‘Remain’ counterparts. This means that the higher the turnout, the more likely ‘Remain’ is to win the day.