A fact-free campaign?

There is growing disquiet about the nature of the EU referendum debate, with contradictory claims being banded about and accusations that one or another side is resorting to lies, scare tactics or exaggerations.

It’s predominantly the Leave campaigners who have a creative attitude to the truth. As some of them freely admit, a fact-free campaign is their strategy.

We’ve seen a number of examples of this.

One of the most blatant was defence minister Penny Mordaunt claiming there was nothing Britain could do to prevent Turkey joining the European Union. As she knows perfectly well, Turkey cannot join without Britain’s agreement (not just by a minister – it requires a vote in Parliament), as well as that of every other member country, which is simply not going to happen — with Turkey currently moving even further away from meeting the conditions for membership. As a minister, Mordaunt knows that perfectly well, yet she denied it flat out, falsely claiming Britain had no veto. The journalisting fact-checking organisation InFacts has made an excellent video demolishing this myth.

Beyond this, the leave campaign have racked their brains and come up with a new strategy:

  1. Identify something popular
  2. Claim that the EU is a threat to it
  3. Hope to be believed by enough people to glean a few more votes

So they focused on the ever-popular NHS. And despite the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, pointing out that their claim was a load of nonsense, the Brexit brigade continue to peddle their myth.

Linked to that is their claim that our contribution to the shared EU budget could be used for X, Y or Z (make your favourite choice, and feel free to use it several times over). Quite apart from the fact that we use the EU budget on things where spending at EU level saves us money at national level (such as research programmes), the key point is that the less-than-2% of public spending we make at that level is dwarfed by the economic effects of being in the EU’s single market. The consequences of leaving would be a blow to public finances several times larger than we would possibly save from no longer contributing to the cost of policies run at EU level.

Another of their favourite lines is to say that the EU is undemocratic, with legislation imposed by ‘unelected bureaucrats’. It is, of course, unlikely that an association of democratic countries would voluntarily abandon their democracy, but it is still worth repeating that the famous bureaucrats — the European Commission — only have the power to propose, not to decide, legislation. All EU laws have to be approved by the Council (composed of ministers from the elected governments of the 28 countries) and by the European Parliament (composed of directly-elected MEPs).

So EU laws are made by elected and accountable representatives, not bureaucrats. Leave campaigners know this perfectly well. Yet they persist in plastering photos of Commissioners asking ‘who voted for them?’ There was a new version last weekend, with photos of the presidents of the European court, central bank, court of auditors and parliament. We don’t directly elect such positions in Britain either — something which seems to have escaped the Leave campaign!

The Brexit brigade seems now to have decided to focus on migration, after conceding that they’ve lost the economic argument. Here, they are hoping that emotion will bury the facts. As I’ve pointed out before, most migrants in Britain came from outside the EU, regulated by national rules, not by the EU. Yet those rules can be better enforced thanks to being in the European Union (for three reasons: read the details here). As to internal EU free movement, that is a reciprocal right, with nearly as many Brits abroad as others here. And those here pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits and services.

Searching for other themes, the quitters would have us believe that the EU prevents us from trading with the rest of the world. So why does Germany manage to export so much more than we do to China and India? You’d think we’d do well with India — the Queen’s dad was emperor there, English is widely used, and there are ties of Commonwealth and cricket. Yet Germany, working under the same EU rules as we do, sells three times what we do there! No — if we want to trade more with the rest of the world, we need to address our own shortcomings, not blame the EU.

Europe actually helps us with international trade, by negotiating trade deals that go further than WTO rules. Negotiating collectively, with the full clout of the world’s largest market behind us, we can get better deals. The EU has over fifty such deals (compared to 31 that Switzerland has, 20 that the US has or 16 that Japan has). And it’s not just the numbers, but the content. Leave campaigners say that Switzerland has a trade deal with China while the EU doesn’t. But that deal allows full Chinese access to the Swiss market, while the Swiss can’t even export their watches to the Chinese market without paying tariffs. Not very impressive — and certainly not what we would want.

Yes, Africa, Asia and Latin America are growing fast, but from a low level of development. They have a long way to go to reach our standard of living. We do and we will trade with them. But in the meantime, we export more to the Netherlands than the whole Commonwealth and more to Ireland than China, vital for so many jobs in Britain.

While on the subject of European trade, many Brexiteers claim that, if we left the EU, we’d have no problem securing a trade deal so good that we would have completely free access to the European market. It is impossible to believe that we could get a better deal as non-members than we get as members, especially after walking out! For every German car manufacturer wanting to keep selling to us, there will be an Italian manufacturer keen to keep us out: our Nissan plant produces more cars than Fiat, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo combined! For every French cheese-maker keen to access the UK market, there will be a French beef farmer keen to minimise competition from British beef. And in any post-Brexit negotiations, remember that we export (a vital) 14% of our GDP to the rest of the EU, but they export (a somewhat less vital) 3% of theirs. Who would have the upper hand in these divorce negotiations?

Finally, the Leavers conjure an image of Britain being dragged kicking and screaming into further integration into some sort of “centralised superstate”. Most of then know perfectly well that the basic EU rulebook — the treaties — which set out its fields of responsibility, its powers and its procedures, can only be changed by a unanimous agreement, ratified by each and every country. Britain cannot be forced to concede any new powers or responsibilities against its will.

Indeed, British law now requires another referendum for any such decision. Funny — I’ve never heard the eurosceptics mention that.

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