Brussels: Now add your voice to the Brexit debate!

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Brexit is too important to leave just to the British. Yes, of course it will be up to UK voters to decide, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the EU should stand silently on the sidelines.

Europeans elsewhere than in the UK have much to contribute to the Brexit debate. With the discussion in Britain deteriorating into a dialogue of the deaf, and into internecine political infighting and score-settling, better informed proponents and critics of the European project could do much to lift the debate to a higher and more constructive plane.

Voices from the continent should include those of senior people in the EU institutions. So far, their views have been muted because the EU and its officials avoid involvement – usually termed ‘interference’ – in the domestic politics of a member state.

“Few people throughout Europe doubt that a British exit would be catastrophic”

But Brexit isn’t just about the British, and the issue is in any case far too serious and potentially destructive for that ‘hands off’ formula to apply. Few people in Brussels, or indeed in political and business circles throughout Europe, doubt that a British exit would be catastrophic, not just for the UK but for the EU itself. Some may be exasperated by the way the UK membership issue is sidelining more urgent EU questions, but that doesn’t mean they would welcome Britain’s departure.

The level of debate in Britain has so far been disappointing; it’s much more emotional than rational. A striking feature has been the absence of factual accuracy, even among Prime Minister David Cameron’s supporters now campaigning to stay in the EU. On issues as far-ranging as trade, immigration and military capabilities, Britain’s debaters on both sides of the argument demonstrate daily their ignorance of how the EU works.

On these topics and many others, there’s a wealth of authoritative research at the finger-tips of EU officialdom and key players and politicians around Europe. Instead of remaining aloof, they should be joining the fray and bombarding British media with facts and figures that correct misleading claims. A prime example of this is immigration, where the ill-informed prejudice that EU membership is opening the door to millions of “job stealing” eastern Europeans could easily tilt undecided voters towards Brexit.

The reality pointed out by a recent Eurostat report is that in 2014 the UK topped the EU league for residence permits, granting well over half a million that went overwhelmingly to Americans, Chinese and Indians. The refugee crisis is not a British problem, and the European Union’s spokespeople should be ramming that point home at every opportunity.

“There’s always a risk that hectoring from across the English Channel could prove counter-productive”

Getting the tone of voice right will be important; there’s always a risk that hectoring from across the English Channel could prove counter-productive. On the other hand, informed comment and objective analysis by major corporations that invest and trade in the UK would help to correct the notion that the cost of Brexit would be minimal, involving no more than a quick and painless re-negotiation.

David Cameron’s error has been to frame his demands for EU reform in a purely British context. The multiplying challenges to the EU’s future are highlighting the slowness and divisiveness of its decision-making. So signals from the UK’s European partners that they, too, want to address these problems would do much to reassure British voters while also setting a more positive course for the European project.

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