EU Referendum

Brexit: countering the scaremongering


In response to recent Brexit stories in The Times, some of which we have covered, a number of pundits have chosen to take the view that the newspaper is scaremongering. It is regarded, as with others, as merely continuing "project fear".

This raises the question as to what constitutes scaremongering and what is simply drawing attention to real but under-appreciated problems. There are then the instances were valid comment is being made, although the extent of problems identified is being exaggerated.

Certainly, The Times of yesterday - on payments to the EU – was probably exaggerating when it came to the payment period, but probably no far wrong when it comes to the £60 billion or so that we will have to pay the EU over term. But on this payment issue, The Times is not on its own. In early October, the Financial Times was talking about RAL and, if anything, understating the amount we might have to pay.

And now, the Financial Times has returned to the fray, enlisting Wolfgang Schäuble to spread a dose of pessimism, including an assertion that the UK would face EU budget bills for more than a decade, running up to 2030.

We have met Schäuble's pessimism before, and his role is very often to fly a kite for Angela Merkel. But neither he nor Merkel can guarantee they will survive the coming elections into the Brexit negotiations. Even if they do, Germany is only one country of 27 which will be sitting opposite us.

Thus, the Financial Times front page headline, declaring: "Berlin dashes Downing St hopes of easy path to Brexit" probably transcends mere exaggeration and belongs firmly in the realms of scaremongering. And, to no one's surprise at all, this is picked up by the Guardian which elides Schäuble's view with that of "Germany", as if they were the same thing.

Nevertheless, one cannot disagree with Schäuble's specific claim that we will probably be funding to EU to 2030 and beyond, and it is about time that the British public got used to this reality. Only if we deal with this obvious requirement will it not prove an insurmountable obstacle to the Brexit talks.

The Financial Times thus has elements of scaremongering and the truth, all rolled up into one article. But I wouldn't put in the same the latest story (at the time of writing) in The Times in the same league.

This has it that: "Brexit is too much for the civil service", with the paper relying on comments by John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, reported by Civil Service World. He says Whitehall is trying to do 30 percent too much, reflecting the growing anxiety among senior civil servants at the amount of extra work across departments being generated by Brexit.

This coincides with new figures released by government which reveal that only 38 percent of civil servants at the Department for Exiting the European Union agree that they have clear work objectives — the lowest score of any department. The Department for International Trade also recorded poor scores in the civil service people survey, which is conducted annually.

But this actually should not surprise us. For nations joining the EU, there is invariably concern about the "absorptive capacity" of their civil services, and the matter has been periodically discussed both in terms of individual states and of the EU as a whole.

It stands to reason, therefore, that there should be a similar challenge for departing states and it is so predictable that the UK would have to confront the issue that we wrote a section on it in Flexcit (see page 174).

Another problem we also predicted was having to deal with the functions carried by the EU's decentralised agencies – to which effect we devoted the best part of Chapter 5 to these and related matters. More recently (in August), we also wrote a blogpost to take the discussion further.

Compare and contrast this with an article by Labour MEP Richard Corbett, headed: "The Brexit nightmare we will soon be unable to ignore". This broaches the subject of agencies anew, written in such a way as to suggest that no-one else has ever thought of them in the context of Brexit – and suggesting there is no answer but to remain in the EU.

This, if anything, really is "project fear", but that does not mean to say that raising such problems is a bad idea. Unless we identify the potential pitfalls, we will be ill-equipped to deal with them when the time comes. What makes the difference, therefore, is that we look to raise problems in order to explore a way of dealing with them.

To that extent, the "head-in-sand" approach of the Brexit zealots - who dismiss concerns about potential difficulties and airily suggest that Brexit can be agreed on a rainy afternoon in Brussels – is just as unhelpful as the stance taken by those who would exaggerate the difficulties of leaving, or invent problems that don't exist in the real world.

Into that category storms the Daily Mirror which headlines the claim that a £100billion black hole will emerge in the Chancellor's budget over the next five years due to "mediocre" growth and low tax revenues.

Even then, in the same story, we have former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell backing up John Manzoni, warning that the civil service is not ready for the challenge of Brexit. He has told the House Magazine that Brexit was "a tougher task" than any he faced head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011.

Asked if Whitehall was prepared for the task, he said: "There's a very simple, short answer to that, which is No. Brexit imposes a lot of extra requirements on the civil service. They're not perfectly ready".

To conclude, though, I can't resist commenting on the news that Ukip has been accused of misspending £385,000 of EU funding on its own general election campaign and to bolster its Brexit drive ahead of the UK referendum.

Although they deny any wrongdoing, Ukip has always sailed close to the wind on its spending of EU funds, and it was back in 2003 that I proposed to Farage a challenge-proof scheme involving the creation of a think-tank in Brussels to provide a critique of the EU. But, as the current claim shows, Farage chose to fritter away the money on endless and ultimately fruitless attempts to get him into the Westminster parliament.

Yet now is the time, more than anything, when we need information to guide us on Brexit, and to counter the scaremongering. How ironic it is, though, while that Ukip is to appeal to the ECJ in an attempt to block demands from the European Parliament that some of the money is repaid, we are having to produce our Monograph series unaided – exactly the function the Brussels think-tank would have been performing.

Yet the obvious counter to scaremongering is information. It's a pity that Farage and I could not have agreed on this.