Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

Opinion: BRemain or Brexit?

Wed Mar 30 16:29:00 BST 2016

This piece was originally posted on the Opinion blog by Dr Nicholas Startin .

I was invited to speak at the European People’s Party’s (EPP) European Ideas Network in the European Parliament (EP) earlier this month in Brussels. The focus of the discussion was the somewhat wordily entitled ‘EU response on the upcoming and possible subsequent events commonly known as Brexit’ and the panel included myself, two other academics and a number of EPP MEPs, chaired by the group’s vice-chairman Paulo Rangel.

The EPP, which in effect, comprises Centre Right MEPs from across the member states including the German CDU and the French neo-Gaullist Republicans, remains the largest party in the EP. Historically it has had, and still retains, a pro-EU outlook. The Conservative party famously withdrew from the group following the European elections in 2009 and set up the smaller, more EU-critical grouping called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). This group somewhat controversially includes the Radical Right Danish People’s Party, The Finns Party and the Alternative for Germany Party which has been threatened with expulsion from the group following remarks by one of its MEPs that firearms might be used as a last resort to repel refugees from crossing borders.

My talk focused on some of the demand and supply-side variables that are likely to shape the referendum outcome. The impact of immigration and security were unsurprisingly the two major demand-side issues debated. In the question and answer session there was discussion of how, particularly in the UK context, the Freedom of Movement (FOM) and Schengen are sometimes misunderstood to be one and the same thing. It was articulated by several delegates at the event that the FOM should be pitched more robustly as a positive factor by the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign.

Much more needed to done in the campaign, particularly with the backdrop of the refugee crisis, one MEP argued, to distinguish between the FOM and Schengen, given that the UK is not part of the latter. In my analysis on this topic I posited that neither the ‘yes’ nor the ‘no’ campaigns have ownership of the demand-side issues at stake in the referendum debate and that immigration and security could be conceived as a vote winner on both sides of the referendum divide. I cited the intervention of the Armed Forces Chiefs in favour of membership (‘Generals: We are safer in Europe’) in their letter to the Daily Telegraph last month as an example of how the security issue could be a driving force for the ‘in’ campaign.

Similar observations with regard to issue ownership were debated on what is often referred to as the economic or ‘rational choice’ dimension of the debate. Prior to the global economic recession which triggered the crisis in the Eurozone in 2008, the economic benefits of the EU as a regional actor within a cohesive single market were very much perceived as a major, positive consequence of membership. This ‘rational choice’ argument was based on the assumption that growth and jobs would ensue as a result of both the single market and currency. However, the bailouts in Greece and elsewhere, the knock-on effects of austerity, cuts and rising (in particular youth) unemployment, have undermined the force of this argument. Consequently, although the UK has not been hit as hard by the consequences of the global economic crisis as other EU countries, (and although the Eurozone is showing signs of recovery), the potential economic pros and cons of membership will be hotly contested by both camps for the duration of the campaign with the ‘in’ campaign unlikely to clearly gain the upper hand the issue. In fact, claims of the perceived financial, daily cost of EU membership, are likely to be a galvanising force for the ‘no’ campaign.

Another issue that was raised, and one likely to influence younger voters in favour of UK membership, was climate change. The perception that reducing the UK’s carbon footprint in isolation, without the existing EU framework, remains a strong argument in favour of staying in the EU for many environmentally conscious voters. Added to this, the existence of man-made climate change is contested by some prominent Brexit campaigners such as Nigel Lawson, so this issue could easily gain traction and become a bone of contention as the campaign progresses.

Unsurprisingly, I also identified the EU itself as a demand-side factor which would, as the campaign developed, increasingly come under scrutiny. Broader than the questions surrounding the relative strengths and weaknesses of Cameron’s deal secured last month, which are likely to fade as the campaign progresses, the broad-brush question of what the EU actually represents to UK voters is key. Despite the awkwardness of raising the matter to a pro-EU group within the confines of the EP, I flagged up the widely-held perception among many UK citizens that the EU is viewed as an elite-driven, bureaucratic project which lacks transparency and is hostile to reform. Related to the notion of a ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU was recognition of the acute ‘knowledge deficit’ on EU matters among British voters, due in part to a lack of educational supply in British secondary schools on EU related matters.

This brings us on to another aspect of the discussion, namely the ‘supply-side’ messages which will reach voters in the ensuing campaign and how these will impact on the potential outcome, but this discussion is for another blog which I will post soon.