The complacency of the Yes campaign may yet lead to a European exit

The In-Out referendum isn't a foregone conclusion - and complacy could win it for No.

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In the climax of the general election campaign, Tony Blair made a strong case against holding an EU referendum. “Nationalism,” he said, “is a powerful sentiment. Let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to put it back. Reason alone struggles.” 

He is right. Even if – as many predict – we vote to stay in ‘the club’ in 2016-17, the echoes of this referendum will continue for years afterwards. Furthermore, as long as the Eurozone remains unstable – which it will for at least a decade – the flame of Eurosceptism will keep burning and the possibility of ‘Brexit’ will linger.

Despite this there seems to be a growing complacency amongst pro-EU supporters that the referendum is a done deal. This is a complacency I hear all the time and at all levels: That when push comes to shove Brits will side with the stability of European membership as opposed to risking economic instability.

Talk to any pro-European politician or business leader and they will tell you - with a wry smile - that the electorate won’t, even can’t, leave Europe. Instead, they will remind you, the electorate will vote with their head, not their heart, when jobs are concerned.

I believe this view poses a greater threat than anything else to Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe.

If history teaches us one thing, it is that there is nothing inevitable when nationalism is involved. People said Scotland would “inevitably” remain in the union when they voted in their referendum last year. And yes, unionists may have won that day –saved by the last minute interventions of a revved-up Gordon Brown – but, independence now seems more probable than ever.

It is an uncomfortable truth, but Euroscepticism was neither born overnight or with the birth of UKIP. Rather it is an emotional conclusion based on half a century of social turmoil which has forced many to question their place in the world.  For most, European membership is in turn intrinsically tied to immigration, perhaps the most sensitive issue for our country. 

Explaining their confidence, Europhiles tend to cite two facts. First, the idea that people voting in referendums stick with what they know, and secondly, a growing early lead for the Pro-Europeans in the opinion polls.

Both these arguments are shaky. The first is just factually wrong. Since 1846, separatists have won 51 independence referendums around the world. Yes Quebec and Scotland demonstrate voter prudence in national referendums, but people regularly vote en masse for un-tested ideas. Nor is it correct to assume that people see themselves better-off as EU members. For those working in domestic industries, like construction or trade, the threat of cheap migrant labour usually outweighs any benefit they feel from the free movement of goods across the European markets.

And what do the polls really tell us? Whilst the ‘stay-in’ camp commands a hefty 22 point lead at the moment, it was only as recently as 2012 that a majority wanted to leave the EU. Britons tend to be more pro-EU when they feel prosperous and more anti when times are hard. This is mirrored in the upswing in anti-EU support during the early 2000’s and 1980’s. Today, global economic recovery remains sluggish and UK living standards linger well behind 2008 levels. Furthermore there are complexities within the opinion polls. Although the ‘yes’ campaign currently has a comfortable lead in simple ‘leave or stay’ questions, when you ask voters whether they would stay in the EU on current terms, a majority would actually vote to leave (41%).

None of this is to say us pro-Europeans are not in a favourable position to win the referendum. Clearly there is a growing lead for the business focused, outward looking arguments the ‘Yes’ campaign is putting forward.

Instead it is a warning that unless we resoundingly defeat the ‘No’ camp’s ideology of anti-immigration and isolationism once and for all, Euro sceptism will live on well past 2017. In the long term, without addressing growing pro-EU complacency we may be sleep-walking into calamity.

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