Photo: Paul Toeman
As the British people prepare for the EU referendum, lack of knowledge about the Union they might leave could determine its outcome.
A political bloodbath is brewing in the United Kingdom. For months David Cameron has teased the public of a ‘better deal’ for Britain whilst it continues its difficult marriage to the European Union. The question on commentators’ lips since Cameron announced his aims back in 2013 to stage a referendum before the end of 2017, with the added intention of renegotiating Britain’s relationship, has been ‘what has Dave been doing all this time?’ After a document was presented stating Britain’s demands in early February, the political elite in Europe were left for two days of hard negotiations. The result is what Cameron describes as a strengthened ‘special status’. Some key points of the deal include an ‘emergency brake’ on in-work benefits for migrants, protection from ‘discrimination’ for British businesses outside the Eurozone, and an exemption for Britain from the founding principle of an ‘ever closer union’.
Cameron’s own confidence in his quest was in no doubt. As the PM asserted, ‘I’ve promised some action and I delivered some action’. But Cameron’s personal contentment is not echoed among the rest of the political sphere. The Prime Minister may have underestimated the potential for complete chaos the issue was always going to cause. He faces a serious divide within his own party, of which was already noticeable prior to the renegotiation. To many, it is clear that he has failed in attaining a sufficiently robust re-negotiation to win over party members that have Eurosceptic tendencies, and this includes members of own cabinet. Those who were once his key allies – Justice Secretary, Michael Gove and Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling – pledged their immediate support for Brexit the second Cameron’s renegotiations were passed. For fear of the party imploding, Cameron had previously allowed cabinet members the opportunity to campaign based on their personal beliefs. The largest blow has arguably been the defection of Conservative heavyweight, Boris Johnson to the Brexit cause; the outspoken Mayor of London is undoubtedly a big enough figurehead to able to yield significant support.
For now, the Tory Brexit ‘rebels’ act as if it is business as usual, maintaining that the party will remain united regardless of the result, but this is hard to believe. One need only look back to the mid-1990’s where the party had suffered serious internal divisions on, coincidentally, another EU matter, the joining of the single currency. The party proceeded to suffer the greatest landslide electoral loss in history in 1997. Clear divides are already noticeable, and with the referendum date confirmed for June 2016, the Tory infighting looks set to continue.
Indeed, dealing with the Conservative Brexit ‘flirters’ is a huge problem for David Cameron, but nothing can come questionably close to his biggest challenge, that of trying to sway public opinion. Recent polls from YouGov would suggest that the staying ‘in’ camp would just edge to victory, with 52 per cent of the public intending to remain in the EU, compared to 48 percent wanting to leave. One should note, however, as shown by the disastrous predictions of the 2015 British General Election, polls should not be taken too seriously. Moreover, the fact that they remain very close shows that there is still plenty of reason to postulate that Cameron’s re-negotiations have at least added more fuel to ‘Out’ Campaign. The reality is we are as close to a British divorce from the EU as we ever have been.
Cameron may be hoping for a repeat of the Scottish Referendum in 2014, where the ‘In’ campaign was able to gain momentum during the run-up to the referendum date, but what he needs to realise is that Euroscepticism, mixed with a bit of populism, is a tricky one to argue with. The ‘Out’ campaign (or, more accurately, campaigns, since three individual groups have emerged) is already in full flow. The most noticeable of which is arguably the Leave.EU organization, which has over 500,000 registered supporters and is endorsed by United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Nigel Farage, who announced in September 2015 that 300 public meetings had already been planned for his campaign. Some of which have already happened, with turnouts of over a thousand people recorded.
On the contrary, the ‘In’ campaign has arguably been far less visible. Led by a popular former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, campaign is well funded by the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. Yet it currently lacks the drive or inspiring message needed to fight a tough breed of eurosceptics. Indeed, it can be argued that it may be a bit confused itself: the campaign has been accused of using false figures in its arguments, along with fighting a constant battle against a print media that is stacked against the European project. The ‘Out’ campaign’s biggest weakness, however, is the fact that it struggles to provide firm alternatives to EU membership. However, one cannot question the fact that there seems to be something appealing to the British public about heading into the unknown, or as commentators would say, undertaking the ‘biggest gamble of the century’.
A more worrying and pragmatic assumption, however, is that the EU’s own identity crises will feed directly back to the British public as there is still very little understanding of what happens in Brussels. Ask a person on the Clapham omnibus: ‘what does the EU do?’ or ‘who are your elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs)?’ and you would have extreme difficulty finding anything close to an appropriate answer.
For many ordinary people, the EU is the epitome of non-sovereignty, an unaccountable supranational behemoth imposing its laws on its poor member states. This boogeyman image, whilst bearing some relation to reality, is routinely reinforced by the likes of the Daily Mail and other mainstream press outlets.
Indeed, Britain has a very undereducated society when it comes to the actual functions of the EU; this was echoed back in 2014 by a then Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, who gave the strong implication that the British public would struggle to make an ‘informed decision’ about whether they should stay in the EU. Clear last-minute attempts to educate the public have been noticeable: the BBC have recently released an ‘EU for Beginners’ guide, providing very basic outlines of the workings of the organization; a step in the right direction perhaps. Yet, with a referendum a few months away, there are only so many efforts one can take to create an informed society.
The current debate substantially surrounds the concept of issue saliency. What has been clear to see around Europe as a whole is that immigration is the ‘topic of the day’, and what has been noticeable around the past 10 years is how this topic has filtered its way into Eurosceptic discourse. If one were to take a trip back to 1997, leading market research organization, Ipsos-MORI, found that on the yearly average, around 30% of the British population felt that the EU was an important issue facing the country, now the figure has dipped easily below 10%. On the contrary, immigration has become exponentially salient, rising from a yearly average of 4% in 1997, to a vastly higher 45% in 2015.
It is clear that immigration has become an important entity with populist rhetoric, and has gradually filtered itself within Eurosceptic discourse over the year. In fact the idea was barely visible on UKIP’s agenda until they needed to embrace other opportunities for support following terrible General Election performances in the early 2000’s, almost 10 years after party’s founding. It has now become the main part of their election winning formula. The merging of populist and anti-immigration has led to the formation of a very powerful tool; this is noted by the director of the think tank British Future, Sunder Katwala, who stated that what the ‘(In) campaign is most worried about… is the potential salience of immigration in the referendum… they are not comfortable talking about immigration’.
The question may not be whether Britain is better off in or out of the EU, this is clearly a matter of opinion, albeit shaped on how informed one is on the matter. The more pressing question that can be put forward is whether there is any possibility of this referendum being fought on a premise of a fair debate? The answer is a resounding no. Reaching the undecided will be the ‘In’ campaign, or indeed Cameron’s toughest audience: an ill-informed public, combined with a persistent populist presence and a media that can easily sway its audience, makes the hill to climb only a little bit steeper for the ‘In’ campaign.
A divided party, a public prevailing in pessimism, topped up with a Eurosceptic press and driven by populist rhetoric, and more importantly, only a handful of months to go before one of the biggest political votes of modern history… good luck Dave.
By Barnaby Ford