Migrant camps in Kent? We don’t need scare stories to make a case for the EU

Published by The Guardian (9th February, 2016)

The fight over Britain’s membership of the EU has, until now, had the feel of a phoney war. The out camp has been bickering over who should lead its campaign, while those seeking to stay hide behind the fig leaf of prime ministerial renegotiations with Brussels. But now is the moment to ‘stiffen the sinews’, as Boris Johnson put it in typical style. The battle for the country’s future has finally begun.

First came Lord Powell’s dubious that Margaret Thatcher would have backed David Cameron’s deal. Then the prime minister said that Brexit might lead to migrant camps like the one at Calais springing up across the south-east, based on the claim that a treaty permitting British border checks in French ports would be ditched following any vote to withdraw. This was an absurd assertion. Even if those fleeing war and poverty could cross the Channel suddenly, the government would never sanction such camps, and newcomers would be placed in detention centres rather than pitching tents on the Kent coast.

These are the opening salvoes in Operation Fear. Those wanting to stay in the EU will win only by convincing voters to use their heads rather than follow their hearts, so will do everything to ramp up fears over the risks of departure. It is not hard to see the logic behind this scaremongering on Calais: it’s an attempt to dampen concerns over the refugee crisis that is damaging their cause amid depressing political paralysis. Expect more of this nonsense in the next few months, with dire warnings of doom and gloom after Brexit.

Support for Europe is shrinking, although still in slim majority, at a time when voters show volatility and distrust of elites. There is little love for the EU, merely weary acceptance that it makes economic sense to be members of the club. Britons’ view of Brussels as a bureaucratic, costly, meddling, slothful and undemocratic beast is the legacy of our history as an island nation. So the hope is to frighten voters into backing Europe, the same tactics that worked in Scotland and in the general election.

Meanwhile the fractious army of Little Englanders, sensing victory after years of tiresomely banging on about their pet cause, serve up a similarly disingenuous vision. They offer a false sense of freedom from supposed enslavement by Europe, and yearn for the past while pretending we can float off and become a bigger version of Singapore – unless on the left, when they suggest a socialist nirvana liberated from single market restrictions. They are united only by their inability to answer even the most basic questions about post-Brexit Britain.

This excitable debate feels eerily similar to last year’s vote over bombing in Syria. Warmongers claimed our valiant nation would defeat jihadists, while those against yet another Middle East intervention made overblown comparisons to the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Britain is a minor player in a much larger struggle; indeed, for all the passion in parliament there were just four RAF bombing missions in the first month after the vote. Hardly the ‘meaningful difference’ promised by the prime minister.

Once again we hear fierce rhetoric ringing out over our nation’s future. Yet as one pro-Brexit Tory MP told me, the referendum’s impact is likely to be comparatively minor, regardless of the result. ‘This is why the public is so apathetic on this issue,’ he said. ‘They intuitively know it does not really matter one way or the other.’ He is right. And voters’ residual faith in politics is being tested still further.

Vote to leave and dreams of freedom will be dashed on the rocks of reality. Already we have one of the world’s most flexible labour markets, despite alleged Brussels interference, but would have to negotiate new trade deals and could not ditch the standards and safety rules needed to compete in global markets. Just look at Norway: twice it rebuffed membership in referendums, yet it is the 10th biggest contributor to the EU budget and has adopted more Euro-law than Britain. It has also taken in more migrants per capita from EU countries.

Perhaps we should also reflect on Greenland, the only self-governing land to leave the EU (EEC as it was then), after a referendum in 1985. Although it has a population half the size of Cheltenham and relies largely on the fishing industry, it still took more than two years to negotiate exit and remains so inextricably entwined that its schools are funded by Brussels. Based on this experience, one Danish government source believes it would take at least a decade for a major economy such as Britain to depart.

But vote to stay and Britain will remain semi-detached from the core group of Euro nations that drive the project forward. Additionally, it seems increasingly likely that the EU will be forced into serious reform by the worsening refugee crisis; so far, its divided and weak response serves only to undermine the core principles claimed by the project. The argument on membership is finely balanced, but ultimately it seems stupid to give up having any say in making the rules. Forget talk of camps and chaos: is it really worth the pain for so little gain?

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