In case you had any doubts that Europe would be a key battleground in this general election, the last few days has scuppered those doubts once and for all. Labour’s lead on day one was a heartfelt pro-European message about the importance of our EU membership to British prosperity, a bold start which prompted defensive moves from the other parties.
And I have no doubt that European issues will come up again tonight in the only live leaders’ debate prior to the election. With a broad spectrum of views on display from the seven parties — some better informed than others, no doubt — I also have no doubt that some of the old myths and non-sequiturs will be trotted out in an attempt to win cheap rhetorical points.
So in the spirit of encouraging an honest debate, I offer seven tips to the seven leaders — seven traps not to fall into when arguing about Europe.
- Don’t misleadingly associate migration with the EU. This is a central plank of UKIP’s nasty agenda, but it plays fast and loose with the facts. In reality, the vast majority of migrants in the UK are from outside the EU. Within the EU, there are about as many Brits living abroad as there are other Europeans living here. And EU migrants contribute far more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services combined.
- Don’t blithely talk about “reform” without saying what you actually mean. Shouting about the need for EU reform is like saying you want to support hardworking families: everyone says it, but without saying what kind of reforms you want, it’s an empty promise. Are you talking about tinkering with the small print of the treaties (maximum pain for minimum gain), or rolling up your sleeves to actually improve European legislation that affects people’s lives?
- Don’t lie about the amount of UK law we agree at European level. Many, many analysts have pointed out that UKIP’s usual claim of “about 75%” is a pure fabrication. The House of Commons Library did an exhaustive survey of the statute books a few weeks ago and calculated that the true figure was 13.2%.
- Don’t pretend that “Brussels” is somehow telling us what to do. This is a particularly mischievous misrepresentation when it comes from the mouth of our prime minister, because he knows full well that every single EU law must be debated and approved by elected national governments — that’s his own ministers. A minister who bleats about unwanted EU legislation is a minister who hasn’t been doing his job.
- Don’t quote budget figures without putting them in context. It’s easy to make off-hand remarks about the billions that we supposedly pour into a European black hole. But it’s just dishonest to fail to add that the EU budget is actually just 1% of GDP (while national public expenditure is 40%); that much of the money is invested back into Britain to support vital infrastructure projects; that British universities are far and away the biggest beneficiaries of cross-border research funding in the whole EU; that the CBI’s own figures show a net single market benefit to British families of £3000 per year; that non-member Norway pays about the same as us per person for its access to that single market; and our ability to influence the rules of the world’s largest single market makes it even more valuable than that.
- If you want to walk away from the EU, don’t pretend the British people are on your side. In fact, support for our membership has been growing for years, and recent polls show the highest ever proportion of Brits support our membership.
- Don’t make out that voters have never had their say. You can only say this if you also think voters have never had their say on the NHS, schools, foreign policy or pretty much any other issue. In fact, Europe has been a key battleground in every general election for decades. And if the nightmare happened and an extreme anti-European party were to win seats in May, you can bet they would instantly change their tune and start crowing about how “the British people have spoken”.