EU Referendum: Some reflections from the campaign trail

In the past couple of months, I have given some 30 talks and debates at schools, universities and community groups in Greater London and the South East making the case for remaining in the EU. With little over a month remaining before the referendum, an event which could profoundly change our country for the worse, now might be a good time to brainstorm with fellow campaigners on how we might best proceed.

Leavers know their strength is to appeal to gut emotion and take advantage of widespread lack of knowledge of the EU after decades of poor Conservative and Labour leadership and much media misinformation on the issue. Making the case for Remain is complex and is not easily communicated in soundbytes, nor does its often technical arguments make good headlines. Arguing we have the best British trade deal through our EU membership is hardly stirring. Leavers’ emotional appeal to nationalism, identity and our glorious past is. If we are to win the hearts and minds of the middle third, we need to inject emotion as well.

Catherine Bearder MEP is absolutely right not to cede the patriotic high ground to Eurosceptics. Remainers are patriots too because we know remaining in the EU is in our national interest. The difference is that the Leavers’ nationalism is atavistic whereas ours is inclusive and positive. I regularly use the line “Leavers want to take their country back, we want to take our country forward!”

Leavers argue we cannot tell the future. Whilst this is true, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of agreeing with them. Professional forecasters, whether economists or weathermen, are needed to help companies and individuals plan and minimise risk. Forecasters are not scaremongering. The referendum is already causing uncertainty and a downturn in the economy, notably in investment. The status quo of EU membership is the safer option. We know what remain looks like (the present), but Leavers cannot describe, let alone agree, what out looks like. Can the leavers name one study which concludes we would be better off out? When interviewed by Andrew Neil, Kate Hoey MP couldn’t.

The Leavers rarely address the real issues. The EU is less corrupt than the misrepresentation of it by the Leavers. They regularly discredit our EU membership by linking it to the Eurozone and Schengen crises. We should refocus the discussion on the actual referendum question. We need to emphasise what we would be leaving is primarily the Single Market, overwhelmingly supported by business, and an array of workplace, social, gender and environmental protections supported by many unions and NGOs. We cannot leave the Eurozone and Schengen because we are not part of these arrangements.

The EU should not be blamed for a host of made in Britain political and policy failures over the past decades. There were problems in housing, education and healthcare long before we joined the EU. The EU, which accounts for only 1% of UK government expenditure, can hardly be blamed for national austerity. On balance, the UK is a fairer and more prosperous country than before we joined.

Although we are able to consolidate, and even gain, support for Remain and liberal values in our campaign, neck and neck opinion polls suggest the wider public is not being won over by reasonable arguments alone. We can only hope that through our continued efforts in debates, on the streets and on the doorstep, enough voters hear our arguments, are registered to vote, and turn out to vote Remain on 23 June.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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  • jedibeeftrix 13th May '16 - 6:40pm

    “We cannot leave the Eurozone and Schengen because we are not part of these arrangements.”

    And yet both of those affect us deeply:
    Post-crisis eurozone economic convergence via QMV will essentially be a caucus, as the ECB has said it intends to ‘manage consensus’ of euro-nations. A tobin tax, more regulation into the perview of the EBU, etc.
    A million migrants roaming the Schengen area becomes a millions new EU citizens free to travel and work where they please. Happily integrated good european citizens? We hope so, because [we] can’t pick and choose.

  • jedibeeftrix How do they become EU citizens? For those in Germany it takes about ten ears, they have to speak German, have worked and built social lives and learned their history and geography and customs etc. Do you think someone is going to do all that and then go “Yippee! I can rush off to Britain now!” Get real! Stop believing the tabloids. By the way we would probably have been better off joining the Eurozone – it would have been better managed and had stricter rules enforcement if the worlds best financial brains in London had been committed to it. It has certainly not done the Irish Republic any harm, despite their porpperty crash and bailout – long since paid off and their economy grew 6% last year. They used to be 30% poorer, now mainly due to huge amounts of foreign investment they are 20% richer – investors like the certainty given by a common currency between their country of manufacture and their main markets.

  • Alfred Motspur 14th May '16 - 5:24am

    Totally agreed.

    I’m worried that the outcome of this referendum will be an electorate persuaded to remain with their minds but convinced to leave with their hearts, leading to a very narrow ‘remain’ vote. This would potentially mean that this referendum wouldn’t be the “once-in-a-generation opportunity” we’re telling one another it is, but rather the beginning of a succession of referenda – with all the economic and political instability that such a ‘neverendum’ brings.

    Put simply, I’m worried that the outcomes and legacy of this referendum will be comparable to those of the Scottish Referendum.

    The article hits the nail on the head. If we want this referendum to be positive, definitive and leading to a strong ‘Remain’ vote, there has to be some kind of emotional attractiveness coming from the Remain camp – and not just the overbearing, scaremongering ‘Project Fear’ we’ve been seeing in the past few months. That might stop people voting ‘Leave’, but it doesn’t convince them that the status quo is anything to be happy about. The Remain camp needs to inspire people not just to vote Remain, but to be proud to be European – proud to share those European values of cooperation, internationalism and being open-minded, forwards-thinking and outwards-looking.

    Unlike the rest of the parties campaigning for a Remain vote, the Liberal Democrats are essentially the only party with a more federalist outlook on the EU. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that, on-the-whole, is campaigning for Remain because they genuinely believe it is the socio-economic and political future of the UK – not simply the best economic choice for our country. For the Lib Dems, it’s not about the status quo: it’s about the future.

    The Liberal Democrats are therefore the best party placed to forward such an emotional appeal to remain in the EU – and thus secure a more confident Remain vote. Neither Corbyn nor Cameron, with their half-hearted, lukewarm support for the EU, can be relied on to promote this argument for remaining in the EU. This referendum is ultimately and primarily driven by continued insecurity over Britain’s post-Empire identity, not over the national economy or defence or immigration, although these arguments can attribute to votes either side. The Remain campaign desperately needs to reflect this existential fact too if it wants to be successful.

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