How the EU could counter Brexit nonsense told to the UK public

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt urges the Von der Leyen commission to abandon the EU’s cherished reticence and fund a hard-hitting advertising campaign to demolish the Brexiteers’ misrepresentations and downright lies.

“Bring it on,” the UK government defiantly says of a no-deal Brexit, because London clearly intends to place all the blame on the shoulders of the European Union. The looming chaos, costs and shortages will be the fault of an embittered and obdurate EU, according to the press briefings of 10 Downing Street.

A climate of fear and resentment is being stoked, and not just by  Britain’s government. There’s a growing chorus of warnings from sectoral trade bodies, corporate chieftains, independent analysts and local authorities about the grave consequences of a no-deal departure from the EU.

So now it’s time for Brussels to fight fire with fire, and unleash a public information campaign in Britain that corrects the misleading distortions propagated by Boris Johnson’s government. Brexit clearly can’t be avoided, but what’s at stake is the future of EU-UK relations. If Brussels is held responsible in British eyes for Brexit’s disastrous consequences, there will be no chance of repairing the rift for years to come.

In the four years since Britain’s voters narrowly voted to leave, the EU has handled the increasingly shrill and intransigent Brexiteers with the same tact and courtesy it affords all member states. The negotiations have consisted of discreet discussions behind closed doors and a laudable refusal by the EU’s Michel Barnier to highlight the sometimes idiotic ignorance of his British counterparts.

Brussels must switch tactics and forget its longstanding reticences about ‘interfering’ in the domestic politics of a nation state

This is standard procedure for the EU, but it’s ill-suited to dealing with an increasingly populist UK government. Johnson and his ministers are anxious to conceal their mismanagement of the coronavirus in the chaos of a no-deal Brexit, while also disguising the mounting costs of leaving the EU as part of the economic fall-out of the covid pandemic.

The UK media’s coverage of Brexit has played along with this. In part because its overwhelmingly right-wing character is anti-European to the point of xenophobia, and also because the EU has made such a poor fist of communicating with British public opinion. Barnier’s reasoned arguments about the integrity of the single market have had no impact.

Brussels must switch tactics and forget its longstanding reticences about ‘interfering’ in the domestic politics of a nation state. Emboldened by the UK government’s newly-discovered plan to renege on the withdrawal agreement Johnson signed a year ago, the EU should harness the power of Britain’s broadcast and print media through a massive paid advertising campaign.

In the simplest possible language, the EU could convey brief messages in large, bold type to puncture the Brexiteers’ hitherto unchallenged myths. It’s not too late to prepare these advertisements because the campaign should continue well into next year.

Public opinion in the UK has yet to understand an alarming range of issues

A forceful campaign of this sort must be placed in the hands of professionals. The European Commission is notoriously bad at popular communication, whereas British advertising and PR experts are famously good at it. Many are also committed Europeans, and can be expected to put body and soul into setting the record straight.

Public opinion in the UK has yet to understand an alarming range of issues; polling has shown that the technicalities of fishing, agriculture, competition policy, product regulation, capital and financial markets, immigration, social welfare and the free movement of goods, services and people are widely misunderstood and, when it has suited the Brexiteers, misrepresented.

A no-holds-barred advertising offensive that tackled these issues would at the very least redress the slur that the EU has been bent on ‘punishing’ Britain for leaving, rather than protecting the interests of the remaining 27 member states. It would also help to reveal the incompetence and bone-headedness of a government that equates isolationism with patriotism.

The expense of daily full-page ads along with extensive TV and radio time would be considerable, yet only a fraction of overall EU budgetary commitments. Looked at in terms of the political and economic costs of outright antagonism between the UK and the EU, it would be a modest investment. Johnson’s Brexiteers must be prevented from demonising the Brussels institutions and the whole European project.

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