Rigging the referendum?

Britain needs independent voices from business, politics and civil society to speak out about the benefits of being part of the European Union.

But a worrying trend has emerged. Instead of engaging with these arguments, eurosceptics are ruthlessly focused on trying to close down debate. They do this either by claiming that nobody except them has the right to express an opinion, or simply by threatening opponents with boycotts or worse.

Not content that they have Mail, the Express, the Telegraph and the entire Murdoch press empire on their side, they are now trying to bully the BBC, intimidate businesses, silence universities, and generally disqualify anyone who dares to speak about the benefits we gain from EU membership.

Eurosceptic Conservatives have also succeeded in the battle over purdah — the principle that, in a general election, government machinery must be neutral and ministers must not make new policy announcements. They sought to make similar rules for the referendum so tight that the government would not be able to explain or justify the deal it negotiated with fellow EU countries, nor respond to eurosceptic criticisms of it or of the EU, nor even to discuss day-to-day EU business. Having partially forced Cameron to back down, they then moved on to neutralise the Conservative party, preventing it from supporting their own prime minister and party leader.

In the same vein, they are clamouring for a prohibition on the European Commission saying anything in the campaign. Obviously, the Commission would not take sides in a national referendum — so why are they bothering? Put simply, they want a free hand to invent new euromyths, accusing the Commission of doing X or Y, without allowing the Commission a chance to respond simply to say they’re not true.

The list of voices eurosceptics want to stifle is getting so long that I thought it was worth putting together a webpage to keep track! I fully expect that the list will grow longer in the coming months.

Apart from silencing pro-European voices, the Eurosceptics have been instrumental in rigging the referendum franchise. Despite a Conservative party manifesto pledge, Brits living in other EU countries — who will be the first to be affected should Britain walk out of the EU – will not be allowed to vote if they have been away for more than 15 years. Equally, eurosceptics are fighting against extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds — although these groups were able to vote in the Scottish referendum — because they are perceived as more likely to support staying in Europe. And Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain will be included (so a newly arrived citizen of Rwanda will immediately be allowed to vote) — but not EU citizens (so a Dutch lady, married to a Brit and with British children, who has lived here for 30 years, won’t be allowed to vote!).

Pro-Europeans welcome a wide national debate on the merits of EU membership. But we believe that we must give everyone a fair hearing — including those who disagree with us.

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