The referendum date has been set and the campaigning has started in earnest. Even at this early stage, it looks likely that the vote to remain will win. David Cameron and George Osborne will be stressing the threats to the UK if we vote to leave the European Union, and this concern about the loss of jobs will trump any worries over immigration or British sovereignty.
The argument that we should vote to stay in the EU because of the jobs loss that will result if we leave is a powerful one, but is it the best course of action for the pro-EU side? I think they would prefer to run a positive campaign that inspires people about the role the UK can play in Europe, but they will ultimately fall back on the vision of an isolated and impoverished Britain outside the EU.
The industry that stands to lose the most from an EU exit is the finance and banking industry. The City of London is the financial core of the EU and, if we vote to leave, then many global finance companies will relocate to Frankfurt to get better access to the EU’s financial markets. The resulting loss of jobs would be felt up and down the country, when we consider the supply chain that financial companies are plugged into. Many companies outside the City are dependent on the economic activity that goes on there, and if you remove those London companies there will be job losses in Newcastle, Bristol and Blackburn.
I hate having to admit that the UK economy is dependent on the whims of bankers; that they could choose to leave at any movement, and that would cause a lot of economic problems. That line of thought leads to the argument that we need to be as nice to bankers as possible - not tax or regulate them too much - to keep them happy and employing everyone else. There is a serious argument to be made about how unbalanced the British economy is and how dependent upon the finance sector we are, but in the short run we have to work with the economy we have.
Do we want to be a part of a Europe that exists to further the interests of the financial industry? Not really, is my answer, but an existence of principled poverty is equally unappealing. Still this argument is not the stuff of folk songs and banners. "Vote yes so that we're not totally fucked." “Daddy, what did you do during the great EU debate of 2016?" "Well son, I soberly told everyone that the EU is not perfect but we are reliant on it and we need to make a pragmatic decision based on jobs and the economy." This is no one’s ideas of our finest hour.
The argument that we are more secure within the EU goes beyond the jobs that will be lost if we leave. Europe is facing an unprecedented level of challenges, from migration to Russian expansionism, from environmental crisis to financial instability. The UK needs to be involved with Europe to participate in the solution to these problems, rather than just burying our heads in Union Flag bunting and hoping that the problems will go away.
However this is also another scare tactic to convince people to vote to stay in. The message is that Britain will be overloaded with refugees we cannot house, then drowned under melted polar ice, bankrupt from financial chaos and then crushed by Russian tanks. It is not an argument to convince anyone to love the European Union, it just makes voters frightened of the lonely world outside the EU.
The EU needs better PR if the stay campaign want to really convince people that EU membership is something important to be protected. The yes campaign is trying to be positive about the benefits of EU membership, but it will not be as effective as a scare campaign. After all, a positive message about British togetherness and shared successes during the Olympics had little effect during the Scottish Independence Referendum. Messages of doom and gloom if Scotland left the union did work.
The issue is that not many people in Britain love the EU. Although most will probably vote to stay in out of fear of the consequences of leaving. The problems of Britain's antipathy towards the EU will not be resolved by a campaign that bullies voters into staying in. The yes side need a campaign that appeals to people's hopes and aspirations for a better tomorrow, what we can achieve by working with our European neighbours. It needs to be positive and effective to settle this issue once and for all.
My biggest fear is that a yes campaign based on scare tactics will ultimately win but will not satisfy anyone. Britain will remain a part of the EU, but dislike of the EU will be at an all time high. Being reminded that we need the EU because we have to keep the finance industry happy - or else they will take away our jobs - and that the finance industry likes the EU is not a strategy to inspire affection and confidence in the European Project. Britain may vote to stay in, but the desire to leave will be stronger than before.
Ultimately this will not settle the issue and will only sow the seeds of another referendum, especially if a new EU treaty is proposed. We need a debate around this referendum that leads to some concencious over the EU, not one which leads to more hostility in the future. Those who are set in taking the UK out of the EU must get the clear message that Britain wants to stay in, or else they will begin this process all over again.
The problem with the yes campaign is that a strategy based on frightening the electorate will not settle the issue of whether EU membership is in Britain's interests. We need a positive campaign about the EU to convince the electorate once and for all of the benefits of Britain taking an active role in the EU. A scare campaign maybe the easiest route to victory, but in the long run it will fan the flames of the desire to leave the EU.