22nd Mar 2018


Stumbling towards Brexit

  • What is astonishing is how resilient the Leave camp is in the face of a campaign overwhelmingly stacked against it (Photo: Reuters)

With six weeks to go until Britain’s EU referendum, the Remain camp is in trouble. Big trouble.

The bookmakers may still have the pro-EU side down as favourites to win and most polls show a wafer-thin lead for backers of British membership, but take a closer look at the stats and it is clear the UK is stumbling towards Brexit.

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  • PM Cameron. The Remain camp has underestimated the contempt many British people have for the EU. (Photo:

Firstly, in a tight race, turnout will be crucial. Unfortunately for EU cheerleaders, 76 percent of Leave supporters say they will definitely vote on June 23 compared with 59 percent of Remain backers.

Even more worryingly for the Remain camp, the most enthusiastic EU advocates – young people – are the least likely to vote, whereas those most likely to vote – old folk - are the staunchest opponents of Britain’s membership.

Secondly – despite a welter of data showing the contrary - Brits think they will be better off outside the EU, with 37 percent saying Brexit will be good for their personal financial situation and 30 percent saying it will be bad.

Thirdly, immigration is – by a long shot – the key factor in how Brits will vote on 23 June. The problem for Remain campaigners is that British voters associate increased immigration with the EU and they take a grim view of its effects.

Asked whether they thought it was a good or bad thing that EU citizens had the right to live, work and retire in other member states, 44 percent said bad and 32 percent good. In addition, voters said the effects of immigration outweigh the benefits of trading with the EU by 54 percent to 21 percent.

Resilient Leave camp

Finally, things are getting worse for the Remain campaign, not better. In the month after David Cameron announced the date of the referendum on 20 February, only six of the 20 national polls showed a majority in favouring of leaving.

In the two weeks since Barack Obama made a passionate plea for Britain to stay in the club, seven out of 12 polls have shown a slim majority in favour of Brexit.

What is astonishing from the statistics is how resilient the Leave camp is in the face of a campaign overwhelmingly stacked against it.

The UK prime minister and most of the government are in the Remain camp, as are the main opposition Labour Party, the Scottish National Party and almost every other political grouping in parliament except UKIP – which has one seat.

The trade unions are for staying in the 28-member bloc, as are the vast majority of businesses, universities and NGOs. Every EU government, along with the leaders of the United States, Japan and Australia have publicly pleaded for Britain to stay. Even the Vatican wants London to remain a member of the EU.

Given the heavyweight opposition ranged against it, you would think the Leave campaign would be on the canvas facing the count. Instead, it appears to have weathered most of the punches landed on it and is still standing strong with the final bell still to be rung.

Like the popularity of Donald Trump in the United States or Viktor Orban in Hungary, the enduring support for the Leave camp invokes incredulity among Europe’s chattering classes.

Prosperity or sovereignty

How can Brits be so stupid to vote against their interests, they ask. And given the overwhelming evidence in favour of staying – supplied by the OECD, the Bank of England and truckloads of Nobel-prize winning economists – are Brits simply masochists?

If voting was just based on spreadsheets and politics was only about “the economy, stupid”, the Remain camp could start loosening the champagne corks now. Unfortunately for them, there are deeper forces at play in this referendum than trade balances, roaming charges and Erasmus exchanges – which most people couldn’t give a hoot about.

The hard reality for Remain campaigners is that the two central arguments they are using to sway wavering voters – that the EU is about peace and prosperity – do not wash with the British electorate. In fact, 35 percent think membership of the EU makes it more likely the UK will go to war in the future, compared with 19 percent who think it less likely.

And when it comes to the economy, voters are willing to sacrifice prosperity for sovereignty. Indeed, over three-quarters said they would prefer to reduce immigration even if this meant missing the government's economic targets.

Brits are supposed to be pragmatic people. So what explains their hot-headedness when it comes to the EU? The Remain camp seems to have underestimated the contempt many British people have for the EU and overestimated how prone to reason they are when it comes to the guttural choice they are being asked to make.

Hearts and heads

Over 60 years ago the French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote: “The European idea is empty…it was created by intellectuals, and that fact accounts for its genuine appeal to the mind and its feeble appeal to the heart.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how many studies show that immigration has a positive effect on the economy or that free trade with the EU boosts British exports. If people believe more migrants depress wages and take jobs from locals, and if they don’t see any personal gains from EU membership, they are likely to vote against.

When Brits enter the polling booths they will be voting as much with their hearts as with their heads. Rightly or wrongly they will cast their ballots based as much on laments for imperial greatness, anxieties about immigration, tabloid horror stories about barmy Brussels bureaucrats, stubbornness at the idea of being pushed around by a PM or a US president, and a deep-seated desire for Britain to keep control of its destiny as on any rational arguments about the economy or the country’s place in the world put forward by mainstream politicians.

This does not bode well for the UK’s future as an EU member.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

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