View from abroad: Lies and statistics in the EU referendum

Updated 30 May 2016


LABOUR MP Alan Johnson with his supporters during a ‘Labour In for Britain’ campaign event in London on Sunday.
LABOUR MP Alan Johnson with his supporters during a ‘Labour In for Britain’ campaign event in London on Sunday. —Reuters

LESS than four weeks before the in-out referendum over the European Union to be held on June 23, it is almost impossible to switch on the radio or TV, or open a newspaper, without encountering yet another Brexit debate. True, this is probably the most important vote that will be cast for a generation in the UK, but the volume and tone of the discourse is getting shriller and more divisive as the deadline approaches.

Most voters have received dangerous levels of information overload by now. Both sides are furiously broadcasting their versions of the apocalypse that will follow if the other wins. Thus, the ‘Stay’ side insists that Brits will be worse off and less safe if they vote to leave. And the Brexiteers warn darkly about the hordes that will pour in from EU countries if Britain stays.

Small wonder that many voters are so confused. As one person said in a TV interview: “Politicians lie; it’s part of their job description.” And it’s true that both sides have resorted to the crudest propaganda to lure supporters. The Treasury has released figures to suggest that each household will be worse off by 4,300 pounds by 2020 if the UK leaves the EU. And unemployment will increase, while house prices will fall.

The Brexiteers insist that actually, the economy will expand without the red tape from Brussels that currently hobbles innovation and investment. The Economist cites a study that suggests that the cost of implementing 100 of the EU’s most expensive rules is 33 billion pounds a year. These regulations include a 48-hour work-week and enforced parental leave.

Perhaps the most contentious claim made by the ‘Leave’ campaign is that Britain pays 350 million pounds per week to Brussels for its membership to the European club. However, they fail to note that around half of this sum comes back in the form of a rebate, and as farm subsidies. Other advantages of membership seldom figure in the heated debate. For instance, Britain would not be able to afford the scientific research going on in its laboratories and universities had it not been for financial support from the EU. On the other end of the scale, farmers are subsidised to sustain biodiversity on their land.

The most ardent supporters of Brexit tend to be over fifty, and nurse a desire to return to a time when their country was not home to so many foreigners. While Britain remains a remarkably tolerant nation — witness the election of a Pakistani bus driver’s son as mayor of London — the older generation nevertheless thinks there are too many foreigners being allowed in under EU freedom to travel and work regulations.

And this sentiment is not necessarily based on racism or xenophobia. It is a fact that Britain’s remarkable free health and educational systems are being overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of East Europeans who have moved here. Subsidised social housing, too, is being squeezed by the skyrocketing demand. The main streets of many towns have been transformed by shops catering to Poles, Bulgarians and assorted immigrants from new EU members. In some neighbourhoods, English is just not spoken.

And now, with the prospect of Turkey being admitted as a result of the deal over Syrian and Iraqi refugees struck between the EU and Ankara, Brexiteers warn of a flood of Turks entering the UK. So on both sides, there is a lot of scare-mongering going on that has only served to confuse voters.

Currently, the polls place the ‘Stay’ campaign comfortably ahead at 53pc, with the ‘Leave’ side trailing at 47pc. However, these numbers exclude the undecided who count for as many as 18pc in some polls. Most of the 18-24 age bracket want to stay, and if they all turn out to vote on June 23, David Cameron and his ‘Stay’ campaign would win easily. But it is this cohort that often does not bother to vote, especially in the middle of summer when there are more attractive pastimes than standing in line.

The danger to the ‘Stay’ campaign is that while older, more committed Brexiteers will vote in large numbers, their supporters among younger voters might simply abstain. To persuade them, all kinds of social media campaigns have been launched. We will only know how effective they are on June 24, the day after the referendum.

And while both sides bandy statistics to “prove” whether Britain will be better or worse off by staying or leaving, the truth is that all this information is speculative and uncertain. Almost certainly, there will be a short-term jolt to the economy. While the UK will save the 19 billion pounds or so it pays annually into the EU, the pound will probably fall, making imports more expensive. This would cause prices to rise.

But much more remains uncertain: what would be the status of the hundreds of thousands of Brits who live in EU countries? And what about the EU citizens living and working in the UK? Trade deals would have to be negotiated with each EU member state.

Even though many major national and international think tanks have warned of the dangers of Brexit, for many Brits, this is a risk worth taking. For them, the steady loss of sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels is not what they signed up for when Britain joined the EU.

No matter how the vote goes, one thing is certain: the ruling Conservative Party will not be the same on June 24. With senior party members pulling in opposite directions, and with so many acrimonious charges and counter-charges made, Cameron will have a hard time holding opposing factions together. This will be a long, hot summer in Britain.

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2016