Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Column / Brexit Briefing

War, trade and project fear

  • David Cameron at the battle of Loos memorial, France, in 2014. "Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?," he asked voters. (Photo: Crown copyright)

One of the main weaknesses in the campaign for Scottish independence in 2014 was uncertainty. The Scottish National Party claimed that Scotland would remain part of the EU, continue to use the pound, and suffer no economic tit-for-tat from London if Scotland left the UK.

Despite their protestations, nobody could say for sure what would happen in the eighteen months between the referendum vote in September 2014 and Scottish independence becoming official.

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That was probably what swung the referendum and turned a neck-and-neck campaign into a decisive 53-47 percent win for the pro-Union camp.

For the UK, becoming the first member state to leave the EU would be a comparable leap into the unknown, and David Cameron’s team are not pulling their punches as the referendum campaign enters its final six weeks. Even his own advisors are referring to the ‘Remain’ campaign strategy as ‘project fear’.

On Monday (9 May) Cameron went for broke, warning that peace in Europe should not be taken for granted.

“Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?,” the prime minister warned. "Is that a risk worth taking?” he added.

After such dark and dire warnings of European conflict, the next question was always going to be: "How would Churchill vote?".

Sir Nicholas Soames, a Conservative MP, and grandson of Britain’s celebrated war leader, said that his forebear would have been firmly in the ‘Remain’ camp.

"The last thing on earth Churchill would have been would have been an isolationist - to want to stand apart from Europe right now at a difficult time,” he said.

The day before finance minister George Osborne, perhaps more wisely, sought to pander to the average Briton’s obsession with property by warning that a Brexit would lead to a dip in house prices.

Unlikely Armageddon

The main danger for pro-Remain supporters in ‘project fear’ lies in over-egging the pudding. The idea that Britain leaving the EU could result in war is almost as far-fetched as the claims, made by apparently sensible people in the Leave camp, that ‘Brussels’ is hell bent on having an EU army and destroying the NHS, the public health service.

Most voters will simply dismiss it as hyperbolic nonsense. And Brits are notoriously stubborn.

Instead of threatening voters with an unlikely Armageddon, ’project fear’ should focus on the years of political and economic uncertainty that would inevitably follow a ‘Brexit’ vote.

Leading ‘Leave’ campaigner Michael Gove added to the uncertainty on Sunday (8 May), when he gave a speech arguing that Britain should leave the EU and the single market, but have privileged access to it.

"We should be outside the single market, we should have access to the single market but we should not be governed by the rules that the European Court of Justice imposes on us which cost business and restrict freedom," he said.

But he ignored the fact that Switzerland and Norway, often touted by eurosceptics as the model to follow, have to abide by single market rules in order to access it.

"At the moment there are no tariffs between the UK and other countries in the European Union. Why should we seek to impose those tariffs when we are outside?"

While it is almost impossible to accurately predict what Britain’s relationship with the EU would look like, the idea that Britain would be given this kind of sweetheart deal having just turned its back on the EU is wishful thinking.

A report published by the House of Lords’ EU committee on 4 May based on a public hearing with two EU law experts makes sobering reading.

Long-term ghastliness

The Treaty on European Union provides a two-year time limit for a withdrawal agreement to enter into force but, judging by the length of comparable free trade agreements between the EU and other countries, which range between four and nine years, the chance of a comprehensive EU-UK trade and political settlement being negotiated, agreed and ratified in that time is minuscule.

Were no extension to be agreed to the two-year limit, the report argues that the UK would be likely to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, which would herald the introduction of import and export tariffs.

“The long-term ghastliness of the legal implications is almost unimaginable,” warns Sir David Edward, a former UK judge at the European Court of Justice.

It is the promise of a drawn-out period of uncertainty for businesses and consumers that prompted the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee to warn on Thursday (May 12) that a Brexit vote ”could lead to a materially lower path for growth and a notably higher path for inflation”.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse wouldn’t ride into town if Britain voted to leave the EU. But we would be entering uncharted water, legally and politically. It should not be a difficult task for the government to persuade voters that, as with Scottish independence, testing these waters out would be little more than a high-risk low-reward game of Russian roulette.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer. He writes the "UK referendum briefing" column during the 23 June referendum campaign.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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