Confused by the European Debate? You should be!

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, June 5th 2016

The EU referendum is so far one of the worst political debates in my lifetime, with no sign of it improving. It is unlikely to descend to the gutter of Trump v. Clinton coming up shortly. But it still leaves a lot to be desired.

The academic Philip Cowley this week compared the referendum to ‘a shit game of football match, with little skill, in the pouring rain, on a Tuesday, but there still has to be a winner.’

There are good arguments for Remain and Leave. Remain can make the case for EU co-operation, the advantages of the single market, the EU’s contribution to peace, prosperity and democracy across the continent, and the importance of stability in an uncertain world.

Leave can put an equally valid case. The EU is the only continent in the world bar Antarctica not experiencing economic growth. It is a declining bloc as a share of world trade (30% in 1980, now 17%); its bureaucratic consensus decision-making make it slow, and it has been unable to deal with such recent crises as Greece and immigration.

What kind of non-debate are we getting? Megaphone diplomacy, Armageddon threats, and a birdbrain history of Churchill versus Hitler. Some claim Churchill as a Brexiter, while Boris Johnson has signed up Hitler, along with Napoleon, as avid Europeans.

Both sides are telling porkies. Remain have said leaving the EU would trash the economy, raise the prospect of a technical recession, and reduce living standards. All of us could lose £4,300 per household per year, while house prices could fall by 18%. Central to these alarmist projections has been the debased role of the UK Treasury, who have already been down this route in the indyref.

Leave are on shaky ground. The constantly used figure of the UK sending the EU £350 million pounds a week is wrong. They have adjusted their campaign battle bus to the figure £50 million a day, but that is wrong too. These figures are net: don’t count the UK rebate, or the monies we get back from the EU.

Then there is immigration. Remain say that the UK controls its borders, which is at best a half-truth. The UK is not part of Schengen, but cannot restrict EU nationals coming to the UK.

Leave have gone for broke on this. They have raised the prospect of Turkish membership of the EU, which isn’t going to happen anytime soon. They have used the threat of 79 million Turks having the right to come and live in the UK, when only seven million currently have passports.

Ian Botham said the UK population could reach 100 million, when it is currently 64 million. But then again, lots of the Remain side, and Labour in particular, cannot bring themselves to say there is any limit on the immigration figures, or that the 330,000 net who came in last year, is unsustainable each year in the longer run.

Both campaigns are saying that we the people are powerless in the face of elemental forces more important than us. That’s a dispiriting message, but as journalist Gary Younge said this week the debate has become reduced to a Tory internal one about ‘fundamentalism of the nation’ (Leave) versus ‘fundamentalism of the market’ (Remain).

So many issues are being left untouched in this. The EU has been a force for good, but is now at crisis point. The Euro zone and EU have big challenges ahead, which won’t be raised before June 23rd by Remain or the EU.

What happens to the UK as the Euro zone and European Union become overlapping? Currently, nine of the EU’s 28 member states are not Euro members, but most of the nine are committed to joining. What happens when only the UK and Denmark in the EU aren’t members of the Euro? The two states will be marginalised in the corridors of power in Brussels, and even international forums.

The EU aids jobs and prosperity we are told. It does to an extent, but also damages jobs. Greek youth unemployment is 51.4%, the Spanish rate 45% – as a whole generation of European youth are left excluded from prosperity. EU unemployment is 21 million as large parts of the continent face decades of low to no growth.

The losers in this campaign so far have been the British people, democracy and political debate. Between the siren voices of Remain and Leave, there is little space for the millions of don’t knows and a little light and ambiguity.

There isn’t the huge gulf between Remain and Leave often portrayed. The UK is not going to become an enthusiast for European integration if we vote to Remain. However, Leave could have consequences for Scottish independence and Northern Ireland peace process.

There is even the prospect of a Remain vote being won by Scottish, Welsh and Northern pro-European votes overriding an English Leave, and beginning to unravel the UK from England. Just don’t expect our political classes to talk about such things. How can we expect to be anything but confused?