Want to avoid a Brexit? Then run a campaign of fear

Published by The Independent (19th October, 2015)

There are about 60,000 colonies of great crested newts among the ponds of Britain, although even conservationists say they have no idea about total numbers of the amphibians. Yet under European Union regulations, just one of these warty creatures can stop a development, delaying projects for months while they are moved and jacking up costs. Little wonder they are the bane of builders; one firm recently spent £1m to catch and shift 150 newts, preventing the construction of 6,500 homes.

Such stories are used to highlight the absurdity of European red tape shackling our nation. So one British minister, fired up with the zeal of his new government job, decided to tackle the over-protective Eurocrats holding back development. ‘I wanted to focus on animals that were genuinely endangered,’ he said. But the minister rapidly concluded this was a forlorn battle – defeated not by the bureaucrats of Brussels but by lobbyists for British environmental groups.

This incident shows how the EU, like immigration, is often a proxy for wider problems. Yes, there is too much pointless red tape, too many self-defeating regulations, and the armies of lobbyists are too powerful and entrenched. But Brexit would not solve such issues. Instead it would merely transfer the battleground from Brussels to Westminster. In fact, Britain has among the least regulated markets on the continent – while the recent car emissions scandal hardly makes a case for the efficacy of European watchdogs.

With last week’s unveiling of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, the gloves are coming off in the debate over EU membership. It was a limp launch, yet as someone involved told me, at least it went without too much controversy and there were enough Tories to make it appear an all-party movement. Finally the lines are being drawn in the defining struggle over our nation’s future; it is not just membership of the European community at stake, since Scotland would most likely seek independence after Brexit.

The result of the referendum – whenever it is held – is too close to call, although polls suggest a slim majority in favour of staying in Europe. The gap has shrunk after Greece’s euro fiasco and the refugee crisis, leaving a weaker starting point for those opposed to nationalism than the outset of the fight against Scottish independence. That campaign highlighted the volatility of voters and the dislike of the Westminster establishment – and who knows what economic hiccups or political shocks lie ahead that could shake the faith still further?

Some believe the siren calls of Brexit should be seen off with an optimistic campaign lauding the joys of membership. But this misjudges the national mood, which believes Brussels is bureaucratic, interventionist and undemocratic, seeing few benefits beyond ease of trade. Like it or not, this is the legacy of our long history as an island and imperial nation, independent-minded and infused more latterly with a culture of openness. So the case for Europe must be one of pragmatism, boosted by a hefty dose of fear-mongering.

Most Britons rarely think about Europe and do not have strong views on the subject, unlike the zealots on both sides of the debate. David Cameron’s desire to reshape the EU and rein in its ambitions makes sense, even if he returns from negotiations with just fig-leaf victories. I understand he is struggling to find support on limiting benefits for migrants or to find another member state willing to opt out of ‘ever closer union’. Yet the domestic battle will be won if the silent majority is convinced staying in is safer than risking retreat – and if enough young voters, far more enthusiastic about Europe than their elders, bother voting.

The case for quitting is largely made by Little Englanders, dressing up their arguments in a spurious cloak of modernity. They call for a leap in the dark to make Britain stronger. Yet since half our trade is with Europe, it seems strange these isolationists believe strength comes from opting out of having a say in rules governing a large slab of the economy (as well as risking the United Kingdom’s break-up). The outers ignore also that our nation plays a significant role improving the community through consistent support for freer trade.

Meanwhile look at Norway, which negates so many arguments for Brexit. It has twice voted to reject membership in referendums. Yet it is still the tenth biggest contributor to the EU budget, paying only slightly less per person than Britain, while it has incorporated more European law than this country. An official review concluded ‘Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules… without being a member and without voting rights’. The authors called this ‘integration without representation’ in order to trade with the single market. Norway even signed up to Schengen, taking more migrants per capita from EU countries than Britain like other non-members such as Iceland and Switzerland.

So much for the myth of freedom outside the EU; it is simply self-inflicted impotence that would be crazy in this turbulent world. Those wanting out are chasing a chimera, inspired by visions of a world that has disappeared. Instead of inching towards the exit door, Britain should focus on the fight to improve accountability, citizen’s rights, consumer protection and democracy in the bloated Brussels behemoth. Ultimately, as our great crested newts show, it is not about where government is, but the nature of government itself.

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