EU Referendum

EU Referendum: spurning the chance of victory


Just as the Guardian carried an article expressing concerns about the conduct of the "remain" campaign, has managed to plumb the depths with a tweet about "Posh Spice's" supposed dislike of the EU. So, from the people's campaign which was going to have ordinary people or "messengers", talking to ordinary people, we now descend into slebbery, this time opting for the loss-making sleb who needs hubby to bail out her failed business enterprises.

However, even this does not compare with Stronger In's latest effort. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, it now asserts that disabled people would somehow be disadvantaged if we left the EU. For the record, they will not be. Their rights are guaranteed by the Equality Act 2010 which enacts not EU law but the United Nations (UN) Convention on disability rights. This is borne out by the EU website, which puts the primary onus on member states to implement the Convention. 

And while this points to both sides of the campaign piling up onto the rocks, it is the ongoing failure of the "leavers" which brings Booker back into the fray in in this week's column.

When historians come to analyse the EU referendum of 2016, he writes, as they have done for that previous referendum in 1975, they may be puzzled as to why the British people voted to stay in the European Union. They may observe that, as it floundered through crises on every side, the EU looked in so much more dismal a state than it had done 41 years earlier. If Britain was not already a member, few in 2016 would have good reason for joining it.

The historians, Booker says, may also note that David Cameron's supposedly "renegotiated relationship" with the EU was even more of a joke than that claimed by Harold Wilson – and that the propaganda pamphlet he is sending to every household is even flimsier and more cynical than that sent by the Wilson government in 1975.

But they will then have to conclude that the crucial reason why Mr Cameron won the day was the appalling vacuity of his opponents' campaign. The great black hole in the "Brexit" campaign is the absence of any properly worked-out and plausible explanation as to how Britain could practically extricate itself from the EU. Crucially, it lacks any stratagem which will allow us continued access to the Single Market.

If "Vote Leave" is on this coming Thursday designated to front the exit campaign, historians will note how deliberately it did not put forward any proper exit plan. Its leading members have offered one vague idea after another. Each has been quickly shown to be wholly unworkable. We've had a "Canada-style trading arrangement", a "Swiss option", "We can rely on the rules of the WTO" and a "special free trade deal" which the EU would somehow quickly agree to accept because "they sell more to us than we do to them".

So poorly had these campaigners done their homework that many seem even to dismiss as unnecessary the use of Article 50, the only legal way Britain can negotiate the exit they claim to want.

And so Booker has put his finger precisely on the key problem. And at the heart of this shambles which is the "leave" campaign is an obsession with immigration and freedom of movement - with little to distinguish Vote Leave and the "GO" movement. They are transfixed by the belief that immigration alone will be sufficient to motivate a majority of voters to support Brexit, despite there being no evidence to support this.

But so certain are many "leavers" that this is the winning issue that they prepared to accept the adverse consequences of ditching access to the Single Market. To do so though, they fool themselves that the effects of doing this will be minimal. seemingly oblivious to the economic chaos that will ensue if we don't come away with a satisfactory deal. Instead, that rely on an almost naïve optimism that everything will be "alright on the night".  

It is this vagueness - the absolute refusal to commit to any detail - which opens the way for the "remains" to exploit fears of the unknown. When the "remains" point out problems arising from the failure to address the practical issues, these are not only left unchallenged, they are widely ignored. Wrongly, they are attributed to "project fear", even when the government quite reasonably points out the holes in the leavers' case.  

Yet, as Booker points out, staring the "leavers" in the face is the only off-the-shelf solution that could have met almost all practical objections being raised on all sides. This requires that Britain invokes Article 50 and then that we should negotiate to join those countries outside the EU that enjoyed unrestricted access to the Single Market as members of the European Free Trade Association, participating in the European Economic Area. 

If the "leave" campaigners had made this pitch to the nation, they would instantly have knocked on the head virtually almost every point made in Mr Cameron's vacuous leaflet, which is based on scaring voters that leaving the EU would disastrously shut Britain out of the Single Market.

But it doesn't seem to matter how many times the "leave" campaign is told that it is taking the road to disaster. There is almost something wilful in its refusal to address the amount of damage that would be caused by pulling out of the EU without a proper settlement. Therefore, they content to tolerate the spread of the fear and uncertainty that Mr Cameron relies upon as almost his only argument.

In so doing, the campaign is resting on a false assumption. The "leavers" believe that, given a choice between "closing our borders" and keeping the Single Market., a healthy majority will vote for the former.

But this is not the real choice on the table. Basically, we must choose between keeping the Single Market and compromising on freedom of movement in the short- to medium-term, or dumping the Single Market in favour of limiting freedom of movement. In the former even, we can win the referendum. In the latter, we lose. Either way, freedom of movement will be with us for the foreseeable future. 

Booker, in his piece, concludes that those future historians waiting to analyse this referendum will be amazed that the "Brexiteers" so blithely threw away what could have been their winning card. But that is the direction we are headed, unless we can turn this campaign round.

If we don't, those historians will marvel that the British chose to remain locked into that weird, ill-fated political construct just as it was about to move on to become a "Government for Europe". The result will be our continued membership of an even more dysfunctional, oppressive and anti-democratic construct than most of them in the summer of 2016 could have imagined.