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Boris Johnson (left) kisses a wild salmon as he is shown around Billingsgate Fish Market in London with porter Greg Essex, uncle of TV presenter Joey Essex, on the final day of campaigning before Thursday's EU Referendum.

Britain’s EU Referendum: A Debate Dignifying No-one

Jonathan Eyal
Commentary, 22 June 2016
UK, Europe
The debate about Britain’s continued membership of the EU was not only flippant but downright ignorant, and dangerously so. And it exposed profound gaps in the public’s understanding of and interest in national security issues.

Even for those who watched it close-up, Britain’s EU referendum campaign has been a curious affair, a cross between a circus and a badly plotted comedy, a fact-free debate where people revelled in proclaiming that they don’t listen to ‘experts’. In short, it was the perfect breeding ground for every clown, every populist and every racist. The British nation remains as fair minded and fundamentally decent as always, but the past few weeks have not been its most glorious, and those who hogged the limelight have not been its best specimens. Be that as it may, and even at this late stage on the eve of the vote, it is worth visiting some of the problems highlighted by the EU debate.

First, there is the worrying tendency of lying, of simply telling fibs in public debates, something the British have been famous for not doing. The Brexiters have shamelessly resorted to lies, from the claim that Britain contributes £350 million each week to Brussels, to the allegation that the EU is so corrupt that even its own auditors have refused to sign off its accounts, and the biggest lie of all: that Turkey is about to join the EU, unleashing its 77 million Muslims on England’s ‘green-and-pleasant land’. Not only was all this nonsense, and shown to be such, but it was nonsense which the Brexit camp kept repeating right until the end of the campaign. In effect, lying was not a haphazard affair, a slip-of-the-tongue, but a fundamental campaign strategy. And, Soviet-style, the Brexit camp decided that the bigger and more brazen the lie, the better. 

One can see why lying proved to be such a tempting proposition. Lying was far more promising than trying to demolish the arguments of the hated experts, with their complicated statistics. Lying was also the easy option, for in a union of 28 states, there are always incurable idealists, rigid ideologues or just everyday fools who like to propose something zany, from the abolition of all nation states right up to the harmonisation of all forest trees. So the Brexit camp could always quote someone somewhere with a scary idea that could be plausibly presented as a horrid plot hatched by that twenty-first-century equivalent of the Council of the Elders of Zion – the European Commission. 

But the most important reason why Brexiters propagated so many lies during the campaign is that they understood that this vote was not about reason but about emotion, not about a national calculus but about the self-image and identity of the people of these isles. As a result, it did not matter what the facts were; it mattered who hogged the limelight and who controlled the narrative. The exaggerated figures about Britain’s financial contributions to the EU were designed by Brexiters to deflect from the arguments about the economic damage that Britain would sustain if it left the EU, as well as reminding voters that the UK is transferring a lot of money to those refugees beyond Calais. And the phoney debate about Turkey’s supposedly imminent entry into the EU was designed to remind voters about immigration, the one area where Brexiters always had an advantage in this campaign. The beauty of the lying strategy was that the more government officials, agencies, such as the National Audit Office and academics tried to debunk these fibs, the more they played straight into the hands of the Brexit camp, because the issues that Brexiters wanted to highlight continued to dominate the news.

Another worrying tendency revealed by this campaign is the shockingly low level of comprehension about the security implications of a Brexit. It is depressing to see a distinguished soldier such as Field Marshal Lord Guthrie announcing that he would vote to leave the EU because he feared the creation of a ‘European Army’, which does not exist, which few countries now even mention, and which any future British government could veto. And it’s even more striking to hear current ministers brazenly dismissing as largely hype the oft-repeated argument that the EU has ‘maintained peace’ in Europe, whilst claiming that NATO will be unaffected if the UK were to leave the EU. 

That’s a very simplistic and barren view of how Europe actually operates. For although relations between NATO and the EU have never been easy, and membership in both organisations has seldom overlapped, the two bodies are now effectively linked to each other through an invisible umbilical cord, and both need the other for survival. The idea that NATO will continue to flourish while the EU grapples with a possible British departure is fanciful, a mere figment of the Brexiters’ ill-informed imagination. The reality is that both the Alliance and the EU will be profoundly scarred by such an event, with ominous consequences for European security.

The first move virtually guaranteed to happen soon after a British decision to leave the EU will come from France and Germany, which will launch a new initiative for a tighter EU. Their objective would, at least initially, be largely psychological: to reassure each other that the EU project remains on track, and to prevent other EU member-states from being attracted to follow Britain’s ‘defection’. The result will be the resumption of the ‘beauty competition’ between NATO and the EU as to which organisation should be regarded as Europe’s primary security provider. That will be bad news for any incoming US administration, which will be called upon to make unenviable choices between upholding the Alliance, whilst at the same time not disappointing supporters of the EU. It will be an entirely vacuous debate, and one likely to paralyse both institutions.

And despite efforts from Germany and France, it may be that Britain’s departure will inflict a terminal blow on the EU. Politicians in other member-states will come under pressure to hold similar referendums on continued membership, and many will be tempted to negotiate special arrangements within the Union. 

A Brexit may therefore condemn Europe to a fight for its own survival, to a renewed and desperate struggle to create new co-operative structures just when national rivalries are again coming to the fore, and economic stagnation looms. A worse recipe for European security can hardly be imagined. But none of this was ever heard during the referendum campaign.

With a bit of luck none of these things will come to pass. Still, the fact that Britain has come so close to such a disaster, and with such abandon, does the country little credit.

This commentary reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of RUSI as an institute.

Picture by: Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire/Press Association Images


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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