The clock is now ticking on Britain’s in-out referendum, which looks likely to be held sometime in 2016. So if the pro-EU camp – in which it is presumed that David Cameron sits – is to prevent that clock from becoming a time-bomb it had better start getting its message out now. But first it needs to get its message straight. In other words, it needs to do a lot better than Nick Clegg did in his disastrous broadcast debates with Nigel Farage in spring 2014.
Apart from repeatedly watching recordings of those debates and learning from Clegg’s mistakes, here are 10 points the in-crowd should follow in order to win the vote, by a big margin:
- Accentuate the positive. A message of opportunity and hope will be much more powerful and convincing than one of fear. The opportunity and hope come from the UK’s participation in, and hence every British citizen’s participation in, the scope, scale and diversity of Europe. It is not a trap or hindrance, as the antis will say, it is an opportunity.
- Accept the negatives, the many genuine reasons to criticise the EU. The basic sentiment should be that the EU does a bit of harm but a great deal of good. After all, every level of government does some harm – creating distortions, wrapping you in red tape, misspending your taxes, occasionally being guilty of corruption – whether it is your town council, Whitehall or Brussels, so in this the EU is no different. What matters is that it does much good too, often by restricting the ability of other levels of government to do harm – eg through subsidies and protectionism – and indeed the ability of powerful global companies to do harm, by means of competition laws. And it has safeguards to limit the harm it does, such as its Court of Auditors and its own anti-red tape campaign. When there is harm or mistakes are made, we can and must work to improve things.
- Occupy the high ground. This is a grand strategic choice which will affect Britain, and its place in the world, for decades, perhaps centuries, not a matter of a few pounds, jobs or points of GDP one way or the other. Don’t do as Clegg did by reeling off spurious statistics about jobs at risk or forecasts of economic gains or losses. Such statistics and forecasts will always be bogus, whether used by “ins” or “outs” because they all depend on guesswork about an unknowable future, and unknowable alternative domestic policies post-Brexit. The pro-campaign’s advantage is that the status quo is more knowable than what would happen if Britain left, so don’t throw it away by trading bogus guesses with the antis’ own bogus guesses.
- David Cameron must show, however, through the negotiation process that reform and progress are possible in the EU. An emphasis on helping to create a proper single market in services and digital commerce, which has been oft-proposed but much-delayed or hindered, would show that there is much to play for by staying in. The EU is not a static entity, it is an ever-changing one: the argument is that we need to be inside in order to keep changing it for the better, and in Britain’s interests.
- By pushing on open doors such as single markets liberalisation and the building of an energy union (a fully connected grid and open energy market), the negotiation can show also that the British have allies and admirers in the EU. It isn’t a case of us versus them. So don’t alienate those allies by making self-destructive, insulting demands as the Greeks have. Find allies who also want what we want, and hug them close.
- Stress that whatever happens in the EU will affect Britain greatly, whether we are in or out. Simple geography dictates that. The difference lies in how much influence we have over EU events and policies. Switzerland and Norway, the standard examples of outside countries that are much affected by the EU, would have only a small chance to influence what it does if they were inside. Great Britain has a big influence, however, which it would lose by leaving.
- Use young people as the main voices for staying in, not super-annuated politicians or fat-cat business people. The chances the young can have, the travel that EU open skies has made cheap for them, the fellow-Europeans they work with in Manchester or London or Berlin, the European popular culture they share, the size of the market for their small start-ups thanks to Europe – these are the sorts of images that need to be shared. Parents and grandparents need to want Britain in the EU for the sake of their children and grandchildren.
- The antis will often argue that outside the EU, Britain would be wonderfully free to make its own trade deals and work closely with all those like-minded folk in English-speaking countries and the Commonwealth. So get Americans, Canadians, Indians, Australians and others to speak for your campaign, pointing out that if the antis were to bother to ask them, both the Commonwealth and the English-speaking peoples would actually prefer Britain to stay in the EU. We already trade vigorously with them (though often less so than Germany does) and they like us being in the EU so that through us they access Europe and trade with us all on the same terms. There isn’t an alternative gang for Britain to join. The real choice is between glorious isolation (in the antis’ view) and inglorious isolation (in the pros’ view).
- If Cameron thinks it important, then he can bargain for some small changes in the rules about EU migrants’ eligibility for welfare benefits. Otherwise, on immigration the ins should do two things. First, point out continually that more than half of immigration to Britain over the past decade has been from non-EU countries, which we are able to control entirely ourselves right now, and that EU migrants have on average been better educated and higher-skilled than non-EU immigrants. Second, push broadcasters or YouTube channels to show old episodes of the 1980s sitcom “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, which portrayed a group of Geordie builders working in Germany, thanks to EU free movement rules. It is a two-way street, one that ordinary Brits have exploited before when they needed to. They might again, but won’t be able to if we leave.
- If you must talk about negatives, talk of membership of the EU being rather like an insurance policy. We don’t know what the future will bring, 20, 30 or 40 years on, in politics, economics, the environment, health or anything else. Being in the EU will give us the chance of facing up to any threats or changes together with our neighbours, if it feels at that time advantageous to do so. It is an insurance against an unknowable future. Why take the risk of cancelling it?
There is no doubt. The argument can be won, handsomely.