Alastair Meeks wonders whether the LEAVE campaign has already sunk

Alastair Meeks wonders whether the LEAVE campaign has already sunk

BREXIT messaging has gone all over the place

The referendum polling generally shows the EU hardly enthuses.  Yet Remain is still ahead in most of the polls.  One of the Leave campaign’s weaknesses is that there is as yet no agreement about what a vote for Leave stands for.  Many of the proposed answers are mutually inconsistent.  What should the intending Leave voter expect?  Here are some of the possibilities.

Voting Leave doesn’t really mean Exit: it means being offered a better deal

This idea was floated by Boris Johnson last year and hinted at in his declaration for Leave.  On this telling, the EU would be keen to keep Britain and so would offer better terms than those offered to David Cameron.  Those advocating this idea note that second referenda have been conducted in such circumstances in Denmark, Ireland and Greece (though Greece is hardly a happy precedent).  Set against that, the EU has sought to make it very clear that new terms will not be on offer.  It is far from clear that such a strategy would work.

Leave means getting back our sovereignty

This is the line championed by many Conservative Leavers, notably Michael Gove.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but what in practice is it suggested that we should do with this regained sovereignty that makes that a matter of priority?  What is suggested next is often entirely inconsistent.  Here is a selection of offerings from the Leave smorgasbord.

Leave means reducing immigration

This is very much the reason for leaving championed by UKIP.  For Britain leaving the EU to mean that it has a freer hand in reducing immigration, it would need to organise a deal that is not just inconsistent with EU membership but inconsistent with EEA membership.  If Britain left the EEA in order to control immigration, it risks losing access to the internal market.  On the face of it, that would look like bad news for the economy.  That will frighten some voters.

Leave means retreating to a free trade only basis with the EU within the internal market

For those less fussed about immigration, the aim is to keep full access to the internal market and dispensing with all the regulatory compliance in other areas.  This could be achieved by moving to the EEA model.  Within the EEA, freedom of movement is required.  So staying in the EEA is inconsistent with the idea of taking a closer grip on controlling immigration.  That would leave many voters incandescent – what else were they voting Leave for?

Leave means Britain will be a special snowflake

Some Leavers dispute that the last two options are inconsistent with each other.  Britain is the fifth biggest economy in the world and could establish a new relationship with the EU on an individual basis, allowing for full access to the internal market – the rest of the EU being incentivised by Britain’s large trade deficit with the rest of the EU – and without having to provide for full freedom of movement.

Mexico, South Korea and Canada are frequently cited to bolster this argument.  This ignores the fact that the EU would not wish to have full freedom of movement with Mexico and that all three countries are thousands of miles from the EU making the question of freedom of movement far less relevant (OK, St Pierre & Miquelon, which is in the EU, is 16 miles away from Canada, but that’s for trivia buffs only).  These agreements are also not as comprehensive as the full EU internal market terms.

Britain’s individual terms would take time to negotiate.  The negotiations with Canada started in 2009 and completed in 2014.  The agreement has yet to come into force and must be ratified by the European Parliament and, potentially, by every national parliament.  Unlike negotiations with Canada, negotiations with Britain would take place in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination.  And negotiations can get caught up with unrelated matters; for example, Romania and Bulgaria declared they would not sign or ratify the agreement with Canada until visa requirements for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens to enter Canada were lifted.

All this suggests that even if such an outcome is attainable it would take a long time to achieve and the route would be fraught with uncertainty.  Many voters might be sceptical of the chances of this outcome or worried about how long it would take to get there.

Leave means sorting it out later

Some Leavers don’t think that it is their job to take a view on this, arguing that the important thing is for Britain to leave the EU and the basis of its future can be settled afterwards.  This is likely to satisfy only those who see the EU as either collapsing imminently or so utterly devoid of merit as to make any other arrangement preferable.  Such voters are unlikely to be floating voters in this referendum.

Leave means never having to say you’re sorry

Those pondering a Leave vote could be forgiven for being confused.  They might like some of these outcomes and not others, and different voters will be attracted to different options.  For committed Leavers, that isn’t a problem.  For those yet to make their minds up, it is.

By not unifying behind a single campaign message, Leave has made a strategic choice by default, to offer all of these options to the voters and to let them decide which in practice will be on the table.  Their hope is that each voter will choose the one they like the look of most.  More likely, with Remain sure to run on the fear of a leap in the dark, undecided voters will decide that Leave would turn out for the worst.  In the absence of events unfolding to favour Leave, it’s hard to see a route to victory for them.  It may well be that Leave is already sunk.

Alastair Meeks

Comments are closed.