The E.U Referendum: Picking Through the Haze

Denis LyonsThe E.U Referendum: Picking Through the Haze by Denis Lyons 



The first and most important question for anyone voting in the E.U Referendum on 23rd June must be “What are the issues?” The answer to this obvious question is not so obviously found. The campaigns of both the “Leave” and “Remain” sides have been characterised by exaggeration, distortion, scaremongering and a general lack of information for the ordinary voter. The leave campaign is the more blameworthy when it comes to hype and frequent distortion of the facts. This side sent a leaflet to every household in the country some time ago entitled “The European Union: The Facts”. This document contained not a single fact regarding Europe its Institutions or how it functions, but contained a great deal of opinion purporting to be fact. By the same token, the remain campaign have been guilty of scaremongering on a grand scale.

The Campaign Haze

There have been dire warnings on the effect of a British Exit (Brexit) on the economy and various figures have been bandied about regarding the potentially disastrous effects on ordinary households. Heavy hitters like the U.S President , The IMF and European leaders have been brought to bat for the remain campaign. Nowhere can the average individual find a document which sets out the advantages and disadvantages in an objective way. Those hoping to glean something from the Public debate will also be disappointed. This has been characterised by mud-slinging, hype and personal attack with the leave campaign particularly guilty in this regard. Among the more egregious examples by the “Brexiteers” have been the comparison of the E.U to Hitler’s quest to build a European super-state by Former London Mayor Boris Johnson and the claim by Nigel Farage the leader of UKIP (UK Independence Party) that sexual assaults of the kind seen in Germany at New Year would increase if Britain remained.

Overall public discourse has been characterised by assertion followed by counter-assertion followed by personal attack. There is little evidence presented by the remain side and often none at all by the Brexiteers, who seem happy to allow their sound bites to do the talking.

Penetrating the Campaign Haze

To penetrate through the thick blanket of media fog is not easy but there seem to be three main themes in the current debate: immigration, sovereignty and the economy with the first of these being the main driver of the leave campaign.

Immigration has long been an important issue in British politics. The common feeling among many is that it is out of control. This is seen as placing a strain on public services like the NHS, Transport and Education as well as Social Security. Recently published figures showing a rise in immigration largely from Eastern Europe to 300,000 last year led to a five point increase in the polls for the leave campaign. For Brexiteers the solution to the problem is simple: take back sovereignty. Under E.U law workers are free to circulate in Europe as part of their fundamental rights. By leaving Europe and taking back control of its borders, Britain can stem the tide of migrants.

On the economy the leave campaign is on shakier ground. The majority of the business community favour remaining and see clear benefits in terms of trade tariffs and opportunities. Leaving the E.U after 40, albeit fractious, years would be a leap in the dark. Investors do not like uncertainty and the effect would be to exacerbate the current volatility in markets caused by the possibility of a Brexit.

The Legal Dimension

From a legal perspective the influence of European law can be seen first by way of the doctrine of Supremacy. E.U law prevails over conflicting domestic law especially regarding fundamental rights under the Treaties pertaining to free movement of people, capital and goods. E.U law also influences workers’ rights throughout Europe. What few rights workers have in the U.K stem entirely from E.U law. This is seen as largely positive, but the E.U is also responsible for a plethora of harsh and petty rules, which are universally reviled and frequently ridiculed in the British Press. This is fertile ground for the leave campaign. However what they fail to state is that E.U law does not apply universally. There are large areas of the system where E.U law has little or no influence like Tort, Land, Trusts and Contract law. Criminal law remains largely in the hands of domestic courts, despite claims by the leave campaign that judges have been overruled by European courts on matters like counter-terrorism and prisoner voting. Decisions in such cases have come, in fact, from the European Court of Human Rights and not the European Court of Justice, the court of the E.U. They stem from Britain’s International obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and domestic legislation like the Human Rights Act and have nothing to do with the E.U: a fact that is conveniently lost over by leave campaigners

Leave campaigners also claim as a “fact” that Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey are all about to join the E.U. This is entirely untrue. First, because there is an accession process which these countries have to go through and none of these countries are near qualification, Second, because all member states have to agree unanimously to new members joining. So, Britain has effectively a veto on any such country joining.

Who Will Win?

Given all of the obfuscation outlined above this is a hard question to answer. The leave campaign has never been ahead in the polls, but the remain campaign has seen its lead eroded. Older and more conservative people in the South East of England are generally for leaving, younger voters for remaining. The former tend to vote religiously the latter not to. A Third of people are undecided. Given that people do not vote against their economic interest, my view is that Britain will remain.