Saturday, May 23, 2015

How to win the EU debate

One of the reasons I only reluctantly engage in any online EU debate is because I have been a Eurosceptic all my life and I have read every cliché, every hackneyed mantra, every block capital rant, every slimy press release and every glossy brochure.  I am so utterly sick of the sight of it I would be happy to leave the EU purely on the basis of never having to see such drivel again, regardless of the more delicate matters therein.

Further to this, if there is one thing more tiresome than your opponent distorting the truth, it's watching your own side engaging in the debate and getting it wrong. So single-minded are they in their ignorance that they interpret any criticism of their arguments as an attack from a "Lib/Lab/Con Europhile Gramscian Marxist traitor" (whatever that means). This is particularly evident among the Ukip fraternity. It's boring, it's lame, and more to the point, it is not going to win us an EU referendum. The aggressive and bullying posturing of "cyber-nats" has tainted the Scottish independence debate and it has not won anyone over. It is that same stunted attitude that will lose us an EU referendum.

The way to win the debate is with rational, measured, realistic answers. The outcome of the referendum will be less about why we should leave the EU, but what will happen if we do. That is why it is important to have a grasp on how we leave the EU. Ripping up treaties and walking away is not a realistic proposition. Decades of political and regulatory integration will not be undone overnight, and not even in a few years. Anyone making the case that we can is someone who probably doesn't understand the complexity of EU regulation or the necessity for it. Leaving the EU does not mean we are free of international obligations in the way we trade with the world either.

Our side needs to be prepared and it needs to have good answers to difficult questions. This is why I have so relentlessly attacked Ukip which is still failing to answer the more nuanced questions with anything other than flimsy conjecture. Ukippers say it doesn't matter but it very much does.

The way the pro-EU camp will fight this is with scaremongering about trade and jobs. To engage in top-trumps arguments on trade and jobs is to immediately fall into the trap because it plays along with the lie that the EU is a trade organisation. It isn't.

From the beginning the EU has been a federalist, supranationalist project. "Ever closer union" is written into the DNA of the EU and the final destination is an EU superstate, with a flag, an anthem and army, complete with a president and foreign policy capable of starting wars of their own. Were the wording of the referendum entirely honest the question would be "Do wish to abolish Britain as a nation to become part of a United States of Europe?" It is fundamentally a question of who governs us and it's about democracy.

The scaremongers will repeat the old mantra of three million jobs depending on the EU. It cannot be said too often that those jobs depend on the single market, not the EU - and the EU is not the single market. It is entirely possible to be independent of the EU and still trade with the EU and Europe. They will bleat about us not having a seat at the top table, failing to recognise the EU is no longer the top table (if ever it was). Most regulation now originates at the international level, and if we leave the EU we get more influence since the EU presently negotiates on our behalf.

The warnings of economic disaster also do not stand up. For sure, there would be a major economic disaster were we to suddenly rip up the law that enacts the EU, but that is why we must not fall for this straw man and be able to point to a workable exit scenario that covers all the bases. The lack of such will be the Achilles heel of the exit campaign.

We have to recognise that leaving the EU is a long term process, not an event, and whichever solution is advocated it must be one that maintains access to the single market. That is the only scenario that will not scare the horses enough for us to win the referendum. The Ukip notion that we will suddenly switch over to trading with the rest of the world is not a serious argument, not least because we are always going to trade more with our neighbours, and as an argument, any half way informed Europhile will drive a horse and cart through it. And rightly so.

Our side needs to be very careful not to overstate the advantages to leaving because it will not lead to a miracle recovery or a bright new dawn and few (apart of from the Ukip obsessives) will believe it.  I certainly don't. Even outside of the EU we are a long way from real democracy, and anything the EU can do to us we are perfectly capable of doing to ourselves.

In the short to medium term leaving the EU will not mean we miraculously regain control of our borders nor will be be junking vast tranches of regulation or abolishing VAT. This pie in the sky stuff isn't going to happen. Nothing in policy and politics happens at the stroke of a pen and not all of our deep rooted problems can be blamed on the EU. Pretending otherwise is not a credible argument.

If we are going to win we must be reasonable, pragmatic and ready to respond with watertight arguments. The coming debate will see the pro-EU side enlisting big business to warn against "uncertainly" with grave consequences for pulling out. This is where the "Flexcit" plan comes into play as an off-the-shelf solution, seeing us join the EEA & EFTA. This means the day after we leave the EU, nothing whatsoever changes as far as industry is concerned, but we then have the power to start reasserting our sovereignty.

We might prefer more drastic and faster methods, but business and the public will need reassurances to vote the right way and these are the compromises we will have to make if we want to win. Leaving the EU is like turning a supertanker and we will have to do it in stages.

This does mean we will still have open borders, but we are then free to take the necessary domestic measures to reduce the pull factor for immigrants, while negotiating with the countries of origin to take measures in preventing the flow. Closing our borders in not a realistic option and nor would we want to. There are more nuanced and creative solutions.

Essentially the "little-Englander" Ukip approach to the debate (of pulling up the drawbridge and turning us into an island fortress) is not a vision we can sell. It has limited appeal and so do the sorts of people who push that line. They tend to be the "Mr Angry" ilk who are absolutely poisonous to speak with and horribly tiresome - the very reason I can't bring myself to join Ukip.

We can only win the debate using skillfully crafted arguments. Mantras and conjecture is insufficient. We must show the opposition and the world that we still believe in international co-operation and freedom of trade and movement, and that we have better solutions to our problems than the EU.

Moreover, we must have broader ambitions than simply leaving the EU. Leaving the EU is not the end of the fight. Leaving the EU is only a milestone on the road to democracy, and just because we have shift the establishment from Brussels back to London it does not mean we have any greater control over our affairs. So we will need bigger ideas than the wholly negative premise of leaving the EU and sticking twos up to Europe.

That is why The Harrogate Agenda, a total revolution in the structure of UK governance, has been included in the Flexcit plan, not only as a deal sweetener, but also as a destination where government serves our interests and not those of an ever distant elite. It is a positive vision that makes leaving the EU more than a dull technical procedure and something that might inspire a movement that lives beyond the referendum campaign. If we leave the running of the campaign to the likes of the IEA and the Tory think-tank fraternity, they will waste the cash, lose the referendum and let the movement fall flat, as every campaign they have ever managed has.

In that respect, those who are serious about winning this referendum will be fighting on three fronts. We will have to deal with the underhanded lies of the pro-EU camp, the brain-capsizing ineptitude of the Ukip, and the selfish, self-absorbed right-wing think tank grandees who are neither use nor ornament. We can only win this if Eurosceptics up their game and start doing their homework - and most of all, do not allow the campaign to be hijacked by Westminster careerist campaigners who get paid either way. I don't know about you, but I would like to win.