While the Remain camp have been painting a picture of economic doom and gloom should the UK vote to leave the EU on June 23, their message seems to be ringing hollow with the public, who according to latest polls, are shifting towards a ‘leave’ vote. In light of this, the Remain campaign would be well advised to focus less on the calamitous economic result if Britain leaves and more on how it can get a better economic deal from the EU if it stays. In the latest poll carried out by the Guardian, online and by phone, there was a 52%-48% split in favour of Brexit. This represents a significant shift since the last poll in mid-May that found a 10 percentage-point lead for the Remain vote. This is all the more remarkable considering that a number of heavy weight institutions have warned of an economic ‘end of days’ if the UK goes at it alone. The WTO has put the damage to the UK’s economy at £14.5 billion in new import and export tariffs on trade with what would be the UK’s former EU partners. The IMF predicts protracted negotiations of new trade agreements during which time market uncertainty and risk aversion would reign, reducing trade and investment flows.
Perhaps pronouncements from these institutions no longer command the respect that they once did, especially following their failure to predict the great recession of 2007; whatever it is, the Remain camp desperately needs to reframe the economic debate. The first step in this direction could be admitting that EU membership is not unequivocally beneficial to the UK economy. In an analysis of 2,500 Impact Assessments of EU regulation on the UK economy, the Open Europe think tank put the annual cost of red tape at £27 billion. Once the various transfers from the EU to the UK are taken into account, they estimate a net cost of £3 billion. This is a considerable amount and the government would do well to explain to hard-pressed voters how they would go about turning this net cost into a net benefit for the UK.
However, the debate, which has so far largely been reduced by both camps to just two elements –immigration and economics –, must be expanded if the British public is to have the complete picture. With vote leave firmly rooted in scaremongering tactics and false statistics, it should be up to the Remainers – especially the Labour Party – to reframe and expand the debate, making the positive case for staying within the European club.
Consider the farmers, one of Labour’s most influential voting blocs thanks to their high turnouts and capacity to sway the rural vote. While they will tell you that thankful as they are for the financial support provided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), they also feel hamstrung by it. The program awarded some €3 billion in direct payments to farmers in 2015, as well as enabled access to €5.2 billion in rural development projects. However, farmers decry the lack of autonomy when it comes to things like the proposed European ban on the use of glyphosate, the UK’s most widely used pesticide without which production of winter wheat, barley and rapeseed would decline by 10% or more. Currently, the EU’s wrangling on the decision to prolong the use of glyphosate rightly has farmers worried about the future. As far as most British farmers are concerned the weed killer is a safe and invaluable aid to their work and the campaign to ban it is fuelled by fear and ignorance. Indeed, according to the European Food Safety Authority, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Authority and the German food regulator, the pesticide was deemed safe, a finding consistent with those of health and environmental authorities around the world. It’s no surprise that a Farmer’s Weekly online poll found that 58% of farmers support Brexit. Clearly the Remain group need to address and convince voters that a vote to stay in the EU will give the UK the bargaining power to get its farmers a better deal, with more flexibility.
While the concerns of the countryside might not ring too loudly in London, the fate of the environment certainly does. While climate change has made headlines over the past year, especially in the run-up to the Paris COP21 conference, hardly a peep was heard during the Brexit debate. And that’s a shame especially for the Remain camp, as few topics can galvanize the young, urban electorate more than the fate of the planet. For all its warts, European regulations have nevertheless pushed the UK to shed its image of being “the dirty man of Europe” and eased the way for renewable energy to pick up a growing slice of the energy mix. “It was the EU’s political decision in 1990 to cap emissions of greenhouse gases by 2000 that formed the cornerstone of the 1992 UN climate convention,” argued Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. Moreover, it was EU standards of pollution that forced government after government to clean up beaches, rivers and wildlife reservation. Those strict regulations are now at risk, as nothing could hold back Whitehall from tearing them up if it so desired.
Factoring into the equation the cold shoulder the UK received from its allies, especially from President Obama’s frank warnings, Britain will come to look like an increasingly eccentric outlier should it choose to leave the EU now. When it comes to the economic reasons for staying, the arguments are compelling. The Remain side just need to articulate them better.
*Alicia Conway is currently undertaking a Master’s in Economics and Management in London