UK and EU flags with a question mark

EU Referendum: making sense of the hyperbole

One of the biggest disappointments in the UK’s EU referendum is the quality of debate. In normal elections, each party produces detailed manifestos that can be compared.  This poll is the most important for a generation, yet there is nothing equating to a manifesto (on either side).

There is a lot of information being provided to the electorate, but the bulk is hyperbole.  Many people recognise this, with 48% (and 43%) of people thinking the Remain (and Leave) campaigns’ arguments are unrealistic.  The difference in numbers doesn’t matter.  They both point to a lack of realism in the arguments on both sides.  And that assessment is now official, as a parliamentary committee has criticised leaders of Remain and Leave for making exaggerated and unrealistic claims.

These stats perhaps point to another disappointment.  Despite the obvious lack of realism they suggest that many people (52% and 57%) think the arguments are reasonable.  Or perhaps, even worse, they have decided to vote without thinking about the issues.  Given the importance of the debate, not only to the UK but also to the EU and the rest of the world, it deserves better information and deeper consideration.

In this blog, I’ll outline a process to make sense of the hyperbole and arrive at a decision.  At the end, I’ll describe how the process is informing my personal decision.

‘Prospecting’ for the key issues

In theory, the best way to make a decision is to weigh up the pros and cons.  However, this is a very time-consuming process, and many of them depend on information we can’t get, or on how the future will unfold, which is uncertain.

A more pragmatic method is to identify and focus on the big issues that will have the most significant and long term impact.  This involves – like an old-fashioned gold prospector – sifting through all the ‘mud’ of debate and finding the golden nuggets that will make a real difference.   .

Project Fear

On type of ‘mud’ that has been slung in this debate is negative emotive argument.  For example, the Remain camp imply that a Brexit might lead to war, and the Leave camp imply that continued membership will lead to us being overrun by Turks when they join the EU.

Some of these suggestions are made with the deliberate intention of manipulating the electorate, because fear is known to be one of the most powerful human motivators.  Therefore, if each side can make the electorate more frightened of the alternative option, it will have more influence than setting out their own positive case.

The best way to deal with this type of emotive argument is to recognise it as such and ignore it.

Instinct

Phrases such as ‘standing on our own two feet’ (used by Leave) or ‘having more influence’ (used by Remain) are vacuous, but they can seem appealing.  This is because they play on a psychological phenomenon called participation mystique, which is an unconscious identification or instinct.

Instinct is another form of emotive argument, invoking an unconscious decision.  It is not necessarily the best way to cast one’s vote because it can make us blind to factors that we should consider.   At the heart of analytical psychology is the idea that the act of bringing unconscious factors into consciousness can help us better develop ourselves and our relations with the world.  If we leave them as unconscious, they can potentially lead to poor decisions and disaster – for society if not for the individual.  And the world is facing many potential disasters at the moment.

When an argument seems appealing, ask the question ‘why do I instinctively like/dislike this?’  Understanding what lies beneath the instinct will lead to better self-awareness and a much better decision.

Minor issues

In addition to all the mud of emotive argument, there are many issues for which the significance is overblown.  For these issues, a vote to remain or leave will not make much difference – or if it is different, it won’t be much better or worse.

For example, on the Remain side, the EU is being credited with all sorts of benefits – such as human rights, safety legislation, or collaboration in various types of research.  These things existed before or they exist outside the EU, and they will continue even if the UK leaves, albeit sometimes in a different form.   On the Leave side, there are claims such as being out of the EU would enable the UK to deport convicted criminals.  However, the problems we have are not due to membership of the EU, they are due to the inefficiencies of the UK’s own internal processes, or due to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is nothing to do with the EU.

There are several websites that provide fact checking on the claims made by the two sides, such as the BBC reality check, fullfact.org, and openeurope.org.uk.  They can help to clarify how much difference Remain or Leave will make to individual issues.

Major issues

This leaves the major issues, where there will be a substantive difference between the Remain and Leave options.  Your choice of factors will be subjective – depending on your circumstances and perspective.  For example, will you be looking at its impact on you, on a particular group of people, on UK society as a whole, or on international relations?  It can help to clarify your decision if you write down a list of the big issues, and articulate the reasons for casting your vote.

A personal view

My own judgment is that there are four key issues.  The first of these – ever-closer union – is on the cusp of being a minor issue.  I can’t obtain enough reliable information to decide, so have kept is as a major issue.  Democracy, economic considerations and free movement of people (i.e. migration) are the other important issues that are going to influence my vote.

1. Ever-closer union

David Cameron has secured an opt-out for the UK from the goal of ever-closer union.  However, the scope of the opt-out is limited to political integration, and there is some doubt whether it will actually have a material impact or is just symbolic.  If it is just symbolic, and won’t make a big difference, then ever-closer union is a big issue.

My concern is that the drive to integration will eventually lead to an extreme and possibly violent political reaction within Europe.  The ideal middle ground, between separatism and pan-European standardisation, is to respect different cultures.  However, having historically moved into this middle ground from one extreme, the European project is now moving slowly towards the extreme opposite.

We are unable to prevent this move from within, so it is better not to be a part of it.  A Leave vote might help to bring it to a halt.

2. Democracy

My concern in respect of democracy is that the EU executive are not directly elected nor are they publicly accountable.  In the UK, the Prime Minister and the senior executive (i.e. ministers) are all MPs – directly elected by the people and held publicly to account in parliament.  There is an unelected second chamber (the House of Lords), but the real power lies with executive, who set the agenda and implement laws.   In the EU, the roles are reversed.  Real power (setting the legislative agenda etc.) lies with the President and commission who are not directly elected by the people.  Furthermore, they are not held to public account, and much of the work of the commission (e.g. the TTIP negotiations) can progress in secret.  The EU president has also been given remarkable powers, e.g. that allow him to withhold EU funds from individual states at his own discretion.  The elected MEPs act as a second chamber.

3. The Economy

Initial assessments of the economic impact of Remain vs Leave were spread – from a 5% growth to 5% contraction of the UK economy.  In recent weeks, many economists have taken a more negative view.  However, on the two big decisions that the UK has previously faced in respect of the EU – leaving the ERM or staying out of the Eurozone – the bulk of economists were badly wrong in their predictions as to what would happen to UK growth.  They may be wrong again in this case, and their gloomy forecasts may well be the result of unconscious fears due to a natural economic risk-averseness.

Graph showing EU growth is very poor

Comparison of EU growth with other regions of the world

However, when one looks behind the emotive language, the forecasts are only slightly negative.  There are also some arguments that being in the EU stifles trade with the rest of the world due to the UK being inside the EU’s trade barriers.  By leaving the EU, we could then remove those barriers, and then trade more freely with the rest of the world (which is a much larger market and growing much faster than the EU).

Leaving the EU is more of an economic risk than staying, but it seems a risk worth taking.  Being outside the EU trade barriers is more likely to lead to a better outcome for the UK and other countries.

4. Free movement of people

Graph showing population growth is accelerating.

Population growth is accelerating due primarily to net migration.

The UK population is now growing at the rate of 1 million people every three years.  That means we need to build a city the size of Liverpool every 18 months, which we aren’t able to do.  The unmanageable volume of immigration has many impacts, such as putting a strain on our health, education, and transport services, depressing wages, and increasing the cost of housing.

Immigraton has a lot of negative impacts for those who are at the lower end of the income scale as well as depressing wages.  Their housing costs are often going up to an unaffordable level, many are finding that their friends are moving out of the area, and their way of life and culture is being destroyed.

Immigration also has some positive impacts, such as it boosting our economy.  However, I don’t see that as entirely a good thing, for two reasons.  Firstly, although immigrant workers may be contributing to the economy through work and taxes, they may also be displacing UK residents who therefore remain unemployed.  This is not only damaging for them as individuals, but increases the cost of the welfare burden to the UK as a whole.

Secondly, those immigrants are often coming from other areas of Europe that have depressed economies, such as Spain, Greece, or Italy.  If their presence in the UK boosts our economy, then their absence from Spain, etc., helps to keep those economies depressed.  As a result, migration is likely to continue in the long term, leading to a rich/poor divide in Europe.

It would be better for both the UK and other countries that people remain in their home country.  This would avoid putting an additional strain on our infrastructure and help to revive the economy in the home country.

Conclusion

Given the poor quality information from the Remain and Leave camps, we are not in a position to make fully-considered decisions.  We can’t tell, for example, whether the UK opt-out of ever-closer union is something meaningful or an intellectual white elephant.  The process outlined above makes the best of a bad situation, and involves four main steps:

  1. Ignoring the emotive language that tries to manipulate fears.
  2. Raising awareness of the underlying reasons for instinctive reactions.
  3. Identifying the minor issues where (despite claims to the contrary) the actual difference between Remain or Leave will be negligable.
  4. Identifying the big issues that will influence the decision, and articulating the reasons.

I’ve outlined what, for me, are the big four issues.  For issues that haven’t been discussed – from peace to farming – I don’t think there will be a substantive difference.

You might choose to focus on different issues, or use a different reasoning in the issues I’ve described.  But this is the most important political decision many of us will ever make, and therefore it is worth giving it proper consideration.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 3.5/5 (4 votes cast)
EU Referendum: making sense of the hyperbole, 3.5 out of 5 based on 4 ratings