Is Brexit, the issue on which the British public will shortly vote in a referendum the doomed dream of those who wish to restore British national sovereignty? Or is it the nation’s political destiny? At the time of writing, online polling suggests roughly equal support for the Leave and Remain campaigns, while telephone surveys – which proved to a be more accurate guide to Britain’s 2015 general election outcome than their online counterparts – point to the probability of a vote to remain. Both indicate that with three months to go before the referendum on 23 June many voters still have not reached a firm decision.
The present level of support enjoyed by the Remain campaign should not be taken as a reflection of enthusiasm for the European project; there is ample polling data to show that most people in Britain neither trust nor like the EU; nor do many people think much of Cameron’s deal. This falls far short of his earlier promises to bring about fundamental change in Britain’s relations with the EU and to get back powers ceded to Brussels; it is also clear that the modest concessions he achieved are not secure since they must be confirmed in subsequent treaties which the 27 other members must approve and because British law remains subordinate to European law. No, it is clear that the main reason that people give for saying that they will probably vote to remain is that they believe leaving would represent a step into the unknown. For this reason, Remain campaigners do not sing the virtues of the EU, or promise that continued membership will lead to a golden economic future. Given the ongoing crisis in the eurozone and the migrant crisis which has effectively killed the Schengen Agreement – described by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU president, as the EU’s finest achievement – such claims would not merely lack credibility; they would invite derision. Instead, while admitting that the EU has its faults and requires further change on an ongoing basis, they have launched what eurosceptics have come to refer to as “Project Fear” with the aim of frightening the living daylights out of everyone. This consists of dire predictions that Britain would face a series of disasters on leaving, for example, the claims that British families living in Europe would no longer qualify for state health care, that collective security would be undermined, that international cooperation to fight jihadists would be jeopardised, that three million jobs would be lost, that migrants in Calais would no longer be restrained from reaching Britain, that airline prices would rise and that UK residents would be expelled from Portugal.
In a visit to Britain in April, President Obama went much further in opposing British withdrawal than anyone had anticipated, asserting that when it came to negotiating a trade deal with the US following a decision to leave Europe, Britain would find itself at the back of the queue. Remain campaigners greeted the President’s remarks as a killer blow, but the opinion polls promptly demonstrated a small rise in support for the Leave campaigners while also demonstrating that that 55 per cent resented Obama’s intervention.
Julia Hartley-Brewer, a British newspaper columnist asked her readers: “Are you frightened out of your wits yet? You probably should be after a week of scare- mongering claims from the Remain camp about how Britain will fall into chaos, economic ruin and be overrun by illegal immigrants and terrorists within nanoseconds of a vote to Leave the European Union. Oh yes, and don’t forget the plague of locusts.”
Much of the scare-mongering has been promptly and successfully dealt with by Leave campaigners and the eurosceptic media. When Downing Street issued a letter signed by 13 senior ex-military officers suggesting that Britain was safer in the EU than it would be outside, one protested that he had not signed it and disagreed with its content, another said he had signed “only under pressure’’ while other senior military men made known their opposition to it. Major General Julian Thompson, a military historian who led the Royal Marines during the Falklands War argued that membership had damaged Britain’s security and that intelligence – the key to effective anti-terrorist activities – could be more reliably shared with members of the Anglosphere than with the 27 other members of the EU.
In any event, it is unlikely that many voters will be persuaded to vote to remain because of security fears; the slaughter of 130 people in Paris in November and the identification of Brussels as the operations centre and bolt-hole for extreme radical Islamic groups hardly provides compelling evidence that being at the heart of the EU keeps you safe. Meanwhile, the evidence that the EU’s “sado-austerity” economic measures applied in southern Europe are giving rise to extremist parties and political violence continues to grow.
However, the Leave campaigners should be aware that such considerations do not demonstrate that the Government’s strategy of maximising public fear and uncertainty will not work, only that the strategy has been executed extremely badly. Whether such a policy can work over a period of months is also uncertain; if the same collection of grotesque exaggerations, half-truths and fabrications is simply repeated, the greater the opportunity for the Leave campaigners to dissect them and to expose them to the public for what they are. To succeed, the strategy therefore requires a series of new fabrications and the like, greater deftness on the part of the Downing Street spin machine, and a high degree of public gullibility; thankfully these conditions seem unlikely to be met. The lengthy campaign period also permits the Leavers to point to some striking inconsistencies in the position and statements of the British Prime Minister, support for whom among Conservative voters has plummeted dramatically.
During the weeks when Cameron was seeking domestic support for his European policy, he was at pains to stress that the choice would be between staying in a reformed EU and leaving if he could not get the concessions that he sought. There was nothing in his remarks to suggest that leaving would be an unmitigated disaster. He told an audience at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in November:
I am not saying for one moment that Britain couldn’t survive outside the European Union. Of course we could… Whether we could be successful outside the European Union – that’s not the question. The question is whether we would be more successful in than out.
What has happened since that time to alter his assessment of the dangers to which he believes Brexit will inevitably lead, other than the realisation that within his own party support for leaving is much greater than he thought, that the public is unwilling to accept that his attempts at renegotiation ended in triumph and that there is a significant risk that his premiership will end with a no vote in circumstances of abject failure? To date, six cabinet ministers have joined the Leave Campaign, along with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who is frequently described as Britain’s most popular politician, and 130 MPs, representing two fifths of the Parliamentary Party. Polling data suggests that only 25 per cent of Conservative Party Association chairmen are in favour of remaining while 40 per cent back withdrawal; the figures for party members suggest a still greater degree of support for a decision to direct Britain to the EU exit door.
Moreover, in present circumstances voters are bound to ponder why it is that if departure from the EU is likely to be as catastrophic as he now says, a responsible Prime Minister would offer them such an option. Earlier, he had stated that if Britain’s concerns were to be met with a deaf ear, Britain would have to consider “whether this European Union is right for us”, adding “I have ruled nothing out”. If the consequences of leaving are as appalling as all that, why was he ever prepared, even for a moment, to contemplate the possibility of doing so? But if these inconsistencies cannot be explained, except in terms of low politics and the need to manipulate opinion, the rationale for Project Fear is not hard to fathom: the same strategy was used to win the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 with the argument that Scotland could never survive alone. Yet there are crucial differences between the two cases, the most important being that the UK is ten times larger than Scotland. As John O’Sullivan, Associate Editor of this magazine has pointed out: “If the UK can’t survive outside a European zollverein, nor can more than 150 nations in the world, including Australia, and most other countries in the G20.” In 2014 the UK economy was forging ahead providing excellent prospects for Scots. Today Europe’s economy struggles to avoid negative growth while the UK continues to enjoy modest economic growth and to create record numbers of jobs.
What difference all this orchestrated bullying will make to the way people vote is questionable. One suspects not much: it is to be hoped that the British dislike of bullying, reflected in a thousand schoolboy comics and magazines, is not quite extinct.
In print, sovereignty is one of two issues which have so far dominated debate, the other being jobs and prosperity; the former, however, is not one that will win over the undecided. Those, such as myself, who believe that it is the most important issue of all, are likely to be long-standing opponents of EU membership whose decisions on how to vote was decided the moment that Cameron promised a referendum. Cameron himself appears uneasy when the sovereignty issue is raised, arguing either that it is something that can effectively be shared or pooled or that it is no longer a meaningful concept. “When it comes down to it, sovereignty can be an illusion”, he recently told BBC radio. “What I am interested in is using the EU to get things done.” The problem is that EU membership routinely prevents Britain’s government from doing the things it wants done, and imposes laws and directives which British ministers do not want done.
As Michael Gove, Cameron’s justice minister and a long standing friend pointed out in an article explaining why he was putting principle before his friendship with the Prime Minister: “As a minister, I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer… Every single day, every single minister is told ‘Yes, Minister, I understand, but I am afraid that’s against EU rules’. I know it. And the British ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter.”
What disturbs Gove and many other Conservatives is not simply that powers are passing to a supranational body but to one which is incapable of reform and which provides no means of replacing unpopular laws and legislators. Although many Tories have been remarkably slow to recognise it, most now grasp that the EU’s so-called “democratic deficit” is not some minor design defect that can be overcome by British argument or persuasion but an inherent characteristic of the European project, and that for at least the time being, it is wise to accept that the nation state remains the only practical basis for democracy.
When it comes to prosperity and jobs the electorate appears unsure about the respective merits of the arguments. The Remain campaigners repeat the mantras that the risks of leaving exceed those of staying, that Britain would be entering uncharted waters, find itself in strange new territory, suddenly face a completely new set of challenges etc. It is also widely asserted that the Leavers have failed to provide a description of the new economic environment that a vote to leave would bring about. The BBC, and even some newspapers that favour a British exit, have accepted this an established truth, and the Leave campaign has not yet found a way to respond. The short and entirely accurate reply to the question of what would follow in the immediate aftermath of a British decision to give notice to leave the European Union under the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is nothing. The Treaty specifies that for a period of two years after such a decision a member state opting to leave would continue to be represented in the Council of Ministers and in all the other EU institutions and that life would go on as usual while negotiations about future trading relations were underway. Britain would therefore continue to have as much, or as little, influence in Europe as it presently possesses and the flow of trade would continue very much as before. Far from witnessing the British economy falling off a cliff, the British public might start to wonder what all the fuss had been about: British firms exporting goods and services to Europe would continue to do so under exactly the same terms, while the much greater volume of exports into Britain from Europe would also continue.
To be successful, it is also vital the Leavers ram home the point that membership of the EU and membership of the Single Market are not one and the same thing, and that it is possible to belong to the latter without belonging to the former; and indeed this is precisely what would happen in the event of a vote to leave. Cameron may suggest that the choice facing the British people is between the status quo and leaping recklessly into the unknown, but that choice was more accurately described by the former EU Commission President and arch-Federalist, Jacques Delors in 2012:
If the British cannot support the trend to more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis. I could imagine a form such as a European economic area or a free trade agreement.
What this means in practice is that Britain would reach a similar agreement to those signed up to by the members of the European Free Trade Area – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein – with which the EU shares the Single Market, and all of whom, it might be pointed out, are doing better economically than the members of the eurozone. To be sure, many EU members will not take kindly to the departure of the second biggest contributor nation; there will be nasty threats. But given the huge trade imbalance between Britain and the EU, Britain’s negotiating strength will be far greater than that of the thirty-plus countries which have reached free trade deals with Brussels in the past. There is no need for the Leave campaigners to be get technical about this. They simply need to go on reminding the electorate that France and Germany export more goods and services to Britain than they do to the US or China and are not likely in the medium and long term to do anything which would change this.
Once it is recognised that Britain’s membership of the Single Market is not seriously in question, matters are greatly simplified. The aim of the Leavers can then be clearly stated: it is to leave the political and judicial structures of the EU while remaining in the Single Market. This means saying goodbye to the CAP, the EU Court, the Commission, the Common Foreign Policy and Britain’s present financial contribution to the EU budget.
A vote to leave consequently does not mean entering a strange new and threatening world but remaining in a largely familiar world from which certain highly undesirable features have been removed. Stated in this way, a decision to leave would seem to be a no-brainer, and perhaps indeed it is. A survey conducted by the eurosceptic Bruges group in July 2012 showed that 71 per cent said that if given the opportunity they would prefer to leave the EU and join the European Free Trade Area.
The Leave campaign has been somewhat hampered by differences in strategy among the various eurosceptic groups as well as by clashes of personality, but if matters are presented in this way the prospects of victory are surely very good indeed. As a report from Business for Britain following focus group research stated: “The Out Campaign has one essential task, to neutralise the fear that leaving may be bad for jobs and living standards.” It added: “If those who want to leave the EU neutralise the economic arguments, then the people will vote to leave as there is nothing else to support membership.”
Almost twenty years ago, Margaret Thatcher wrote: “That such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked on will be seen in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era. And that Britain, with her traditional strengths and global destiny, should ever have been part of it will appear a political error of historic magnitude. There is, though, still time to choose a different and a better course.”
There is still time, and if Project Fear is shown to be based on a series of misconceptions and falsehoods, the chances are that the British people will do so.
* Edited version of the article published in the Sidney journal Quandary, April 2016.