Sunday

25th Feb 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

Don't copy us, we're British

  • ‘Project Fear’ did little to sway the vote, but rather increased public distrust in the UK government. (Photo: The European Union)

If any European country decides that a vote on EU membership might be for them, they shouldn’t use Britain in 2016 as a good model to follow.

That, at least, was the message of British MPs on the Public Accounts committee in their report published Wednesday (11 April) on the conduct of the June vote. It’s fair to say that few Brits – whether Brexiteers or Remainers – would disagree that the process was botched.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • The Leave campaign told voters that leaving the EU would be without cost and that it would in fact boost the British economy. (Photo: Reuters)

A referendum that produces a result that the government has not prepared for and which the prime minister would rather resign over than implement can hardly be seen as a triumph.

Referendums are by their nature divisive, especially when they are used to resolve an internal party debate – such as EU membership – that had become, in the words of liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, ‘a catfight in a Tory party that got out of hand’.

It hardly helps that the government machine has effectively been co-opted before and after the referendum.

'Project Fear' failed

Ahead of the 1975 referendum on the UK’s continued EEC membership, civil servants in the Cabinet Office prepared for a possible UK exit from the then EEC with detailed contingency plans focusing on the length of time required for withdrawal to be negotiated, the financial consequences of leaving and issues such as subsidy payments to farmers, tariffs and future trading arrangements with Europe.

That didn’t happen in 2016. Instead, the government machine found itself pitched into the centre of the campaign on behalf of the Remain side.

The government spent £9.3 million (€11 million) on circulating a leaflet with, as it turned out, wildly over-inflated warnings of instant recession in the wake of a ‘Leave’ vote.

‘Project Fear’ did little to sway the vote but they did succeed in increasing public distrust in government, tarnishing the reputation of David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne and, just as importantly, civil servants – particularly in the Treasury.

Unlike the politicians, the civil servants kept their jobs after June 23rd. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Head of the Civil Service, acknowledged that the use of the government machine contributed to a perception that the civil service was biased.

But they, and the leaders of other public bodies, were put on notice not to look like they were interfering in politics.

Having been among the warning voices about the possible economic consequences of Brexit – albeit it in carefully nuanced language – Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, now finds himself a marked man among Brexiteers.

Prime minister Theresa May's government is still wrestling with her predecessor’s failure to prepare the ground for a ‘Leave’ vote.

Brexit minister David Davis admitted to MPs in March that the civil service has not done any economic modelling on the consequences of different post-2019 options.

This laissez-faire approach won’t wash a second time.

Unwanted realism

Yet, having watched the Cameron government over-egg the pudding by warning of post-Brexit oblivion, Theresa May has gone to the opposite extreme.

Any business or individual casting doubt on the glory of Brexit, risks being vilified by the Eurosceptic media and cold-shouldered by ministers.

Earlier this week, Noel Quinn, CEO of banking giant HSBC, stated that some of its major clients were asking for trades to be conducted through their Paris operations rather than London, and were looking to shift their headquarters from London to continental Europe.

Despite the widespread fears among a number of major companies about the EU exit, Quinn is one of the few prepared to put his head above the parapet. The failure of ‘Project Fear’ appears to mean that the realism of experts is unwanted.

The Leave campaign told voters that exiting the EU was without cost and would in fact bring an economic boost to the UK.

It’s too early to say definitively that they are wrong – the value of the pound may have crashed but most sectors of the economy have continued business as usual since last June.

In all likelihood, however, the UK is going to revert to a WTO trade arrangement with the EU.

If the reality of Brexit means more expensive holidays and grocery bills, job losses and new constitutional problems in Scotland and Northern Ireland - the public mood will shift.

As the debacle of 2016 demonstrated, failure to prepare costs credibility and careers. The rest of the EU-27 should take note.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

EUobserved

MPs and media create Brexit hacking scare

A report by British MPs said it cannot rule out that a cyber attack caused a voter registration website to crash, but also admitted it had "no direct evidence" of Russian or Chinese influence.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit: Between a rock and a hard place

As EU commission chief Juncker put it, "everybody will lose" if pig-headed nationalism in the UK and the EU led to a messy and expensive divorce. The controversy over Gibraltar doesn't bode well.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

UK seeks flexible transition length after Brexit

Britain wants to negotiate with Brussels the end date of the Brexit transition period - without saying what their preferred end date would be. The UK's position paper disagrees with the EU on other key points too.

Barnier warns UK Brexit transition period 'not a given'

After one of the tensest week so far in Brexit talks, 'substantial' disagreements remain between the UK and the EU over transition, with Michel Barnier insisting London needs to decide on the future relationship and Ireland for Brexit to happen.

News in Brief

  1. EU calls for immediate ceasefire in Syria
  2. UK's post-Brexit vision is 'pure illusion', Tusk says
  3. EU leaders express solidarity with Cyprus in Turkey drill row
  4. EU to double funding for Sahel forces
  5. EU parliament president: 'The immigration problem is Africa'
  6. May to unveil EU departure strategy next week
  7. Pregnant workers may be dismissed, EU court rules
  8. Romanian minister demands anti-corruption prosecutor fired

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ILGA EuropeAnkara Ban on LGBTI Events Continues as Turkish Courts Reject NGO Appeals
  2. Aid & Trade LondonJoin Thousands of Stakeholders of the Global Aid Industry at Aid & Trade London
  3. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.European Free Alliance Joins MHRMI to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism Year to Promote Business and Mutual Ties
  5. European Jewish CongressAt “An End to Antisemitism!” Conference, Dr. Kantor Calls for Ambitious Solutions
  6. UNESDAA Year Ago UNESDA Members Pledged to Reduce Added Sugars in Soft Drinks by 10%
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  8. CESICESI@Noon on ‘Digitalisation & Future of Work: Social Protection For All?’ - March 7
  9. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  11. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP
  12. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.Suing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name

Latest News

  1. EU agrees budget to focus on defence, security and migration
  2. EU leaders nix transnational lists, cool on 'Spitzenkandidat'
  3. Regions chief: calls for smaller EU budget are 'impossible'
  4. Election fever picks up This WEEK
  5. EU-Morocco fishing deal casts doubt on EU future foreign policy
  6. EU leaders put 'Spitzenkandidat' on summit menu
  7. European far-right political party risks collapse
  8. The key budget issues on EU leaders' table

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Swedish EnterprisesHarnessing Globalization- at What Cost? Keynote Speaker Commissioner Malmström
  2. European Friends of ArmeniaSave The Date 28/02: “Nagorno-Karabakh & the EU: 1988-2018”
  3. European Heart NetworkSmart CAP is Triple Win for Economy, Environment and Health
  4. European Free AlllianceEFA Joined the Protest in Aiacciu to Solicit a Dialogue After the Elections
  5. EPSUDrinking Water Directive Step Forward but Human Right to Water Not Recognized
  6. European Gaming & Betting AssociationGambling Operators File Data Protection Complaint Against Payment Block in Norway
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Expresses Deep Concern Over Proposed Holocaust Law in Poland
  8. CECEConstruction Industry Gets Together to Discuss the Digital Revolution @ the EU Industry Days
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Relations in the New Era
  10. European Free AlllianceEnd Discrimination of European Minorities - Sign the Minority Safepack Initiative
  11. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Diversity Shouldn’t Be Only a Slogan” Lorant Vincze (Fuen) Warns European Commission
  12. Dialogue PlatformWhat Can Christians Learn from a Global Islamic Movement?