With nearly three months gone following the European referendum on Thursday June 23rd, this is an opportune moment to reflect on the nature of the campaigns run by both the Remain and Leave camps; the omissions on the Remain side which meant that it was a campaign with little imagination and the perspectives ahead now the vote has been taken.
Nature of the campaigns:
Briefly put, there were 3 fundamental issues which provided the vast majority of the campaign coverage…economic, budget contribution and migration.
a) Economic issues:
In retrospect, there is no doubt that this issue was overdone by the Remain campaign, becoming known as Project Fear, culminating in the threat of an emergency budget and economic recession. Three months on from the vote, these threats are seen to be hollow, with a booming stock market benefitting from a falling pound. It is, of course, early days, but the reality is that nothing has yet changed in our relationship with the EU. The situation could worsen if we negotiate a deal with the EU excluding ourselves from the Single Market, but we are not yet there;
b) Budget contribution:
This became the worst visible example of distortion of facts during the campaign. Not just for the amount quoted incessantly by the Vote Leave campaign of £350 million per week handed to Brussels, which was systematically disproved (the real figure being closer to £150 million per week); but also the promise to give an equivalent amount to the NHS was never going to be achievable. Even Nigel Farage admitted this was incorrect, but Boris Johnson maintained the lie to the end (this promise has now been deleted by the successor organisation to Vote Leave – Change Britain);
The portrayal of this issue was no doubt a major element in the Vote Leave campaign’s success. The seeds had been unwittingly sown by the decision of Tony Blair’s Government in 2004 to ignore EU provisions to have transitional arrangements for Eastern European access to our labour market. Instead of the 13,000 expected in the first phase of membership, over 500,000 people arrived ! (The Polish are now the most numerous among non-UK residents, reaching over 800,000 by December 2015).
And then there was their assertion that Turkey was about to join the EU, flooding our country with millions more migrants. Despite the fact that only one of 35 chapters of the enlargement negotiations had been concluded and that there were 28 national vetoes to stop this happening, including from the UK, the poster image of ‘Breaking Point’ had its desired effect. Bizarre that both David Cameron and Boris Johnson were both down on record as being enthusiasts for Turkish accession – a real Eton mess !
B) Omissions from the Remain campaign:
a) No long-term vision for young voters:
Although it was clear from the outset that the age group between 18-34 was by far and away the most pro-European, so much effort was invested in the economic argument that was supposed to be the main motivator for people to vote for Remain, little was done to talk about future challenges which could attract the interest of the young voter.
Looking at much of the work of the EU, whether providing access to other European countries to study and work, cooperating together to help solve environmental challenges such as climate change or formulating joint objectives to help eradicate global poverty, there was ample opportunity to provide a positive message about the vital need for future cooperation. Sadly, this was never a priority among those who saw the EU as purely an economic vehicle;
b) No mention of China:
All long term assessments underline the inescapable rise of China as being a significant unknown factor for the stability of the Western world. But this was never mentioned during the campaign by the Remain side, even if it is crystal clear that the Silk Road being developed by China will imply an immense competitive and political challenge from the East for Europe.
Recently, with the high profile attention paid to growing Chinese investment in our economy eg for nuclear energy supply at Hinckley Point, it is now clear that the Remain leaders – Cameron, Osborne and Mandelson – all shared the view that China should be considered as a friendly power to be welcomed with open arms. Neither the US nor Australia share these very optimistic and naive views;
c) No rebuttal that the EU is unaccountable:
Time after time, the Leave campaign (Farage, Gove, Johnson) alleged that the EU is unaccountable. Polls taken at the time of the vote (eg by Lord Ashcroft) revealed that the lack of having a say in decisions from Brussels was a major reason for people to vote Leave. But at no point did the Remain campaign take the opportunity to explain the concept of shared sovereignty whereby our elected representatives – MEPs – were directly involved in taking legislative and budgetary decisions to ensure accountability for the people.
The sad conclusion to be drawn is that national politicians, whether Conservative or Labour, were not going to kick the habit of a lifetime, ignoring the existence of the UK’s elected representatives in the European Parliament, blaming Brussels for everything that went wrong, regardless of who was in reality responsible. The campaign run by many of those who had spent much of their political lives running down the EU simply were not credible to many voters.
C) Perspectives ahead:
a) Brexit means Brexit:
Whatever personal views may be about the outcome and the massive shortcomings of the Remain campaign, it is perfectly clear that the result of the vote cannot be ignored. A high turnout of over 70% illustrated that many people voted who normally would not do so in a General Election because they saw this was their opportunity to make their vote count and be noticed.
While there was undoubtedly extraordinary insouciance shown by those who formulated the referendum bill, making no provision for a minimum threshold on overall turnout or to ensure for constitutional issues of this magnitude that a two-thirds majority should be required, the British people have voted to leave. This vote must now be respected, even if this tears up the post-war consensus of shared sovereignty in the pursuit of stability and prosperity in Europe and puts the future of the European Union at risk;
b) Triggering Article 50:
While the British people have voted to leave the EU, in a vote which was not just anti EU, but anti globalisation, anti elite and anti migrant, there is a huge question mark about what happens next. Despite being asked on several occasions what the future might be should the Leave campaign win, there was no clear answer from Gove and Johnson: only Farage was honest enough to say this means Leave everything. The lack of preparedness by the Brexiteers beggars belief ! In reality, there are several choices open to the UK, but only one which will allow a smooth transition for the UK to leave the EU.
As the moment of truth approaches, three major elements are of critical importance. First, after more than 40 years of EU membership, the enormity of unravelling thousands of regulations in every sector becomes increasingly apparent. Should a bespoke trade deal be requested for the UK with the EU, as desired by Change Britain, this could take at least the next decade to implement. Second, the UK cannot sign up to new trade deals with the outside world before this trade deal is concluded (this was confirmed by major countries at the G20 meeting in China a few days’ ago). Third, once the time of 2 years has elapsed under the Article 50 procedure, the UK will fall under WTO rules. Although the U.K. has been a signatory member of the WTO from January 1995, the Government will have to renegotiate tariffs and quotas becoming a member in itself rather that through the EU banner.
There is a vast discrepancy between the hard liners who want the UK to leave now and the time scale now facing the UK Government. Time is of the essence. The only approach to avoid massive economic and political upheaval in the years’ ahead for the UK is to join the European Economic Area (EEA). This will meet the wish of the British people to leave the EU, but will allow the UK to remain in the single market. Oddly enough, it could also the best way to introduce a brake on the numbers of EU migrants through safeguard measures introduced under its Articles 112/113. This is the approach recommended by the Flexcit Alliance supported by Christopher Booker, providing the only publicly available detailed analysis of what Brexit means in reality, starting with EEA membership through gradual withdrawal.
Not only does this approach have the significant advantage of helping to keep major investments of multinationals in the UK. Their minds are not yet made up, but will certainly disinvest should the UK signal its intention to leave the single market (witness recent comments by the Japanese Government). But also this approach is the only way to keep Scotland from running a second referendum for independence and potentially splitting the UK. Finally, this solution has the merit that it would respect the overall referendum vote where no more than a maximum of 30% voted for a hard line on Brexit;
c) Approval of the House of Commons for the deal:
Regardless of the views of some for a second referendum, I believe that this will be insufficient in itself. It is difficult to think that a Conservative Government without a clear mandate of the British people could leave the EU without approval from the House of Commons, even if the start of the process of applying Article 50 is done on the basis of the Royal Prerogative.
As this process, probably beginning in the New Year, is not likely to conclude until 2019 at the earliest, it is vital that the House of Commons should have the opportunity to ratify the final outcome, thus having the opportunity to abrogate the European Communities Act 1972 which introduced EC law into the UK. Failing this procedure taking place, it will have to be finally decided at the ballot box at the next general election, to be held at the latest in 2020. Surely democracy requires this to be done, not least because those who campaigned for Leave did not provide the answer in detail themselves.
Saturday 17 September 2016