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EU Referendum: Reflections from the campaign trail

May 16, 2016 11:27 AM
By Nick Hopkinson in Lib Dem Voice
Nick Hopkinson

Nick Hopkinson, former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reflects on his time on the referendum campaign trail

In the past couple of months, I have given some 30 talks and debates at schools, universities and community groups in Greater London and the South East making the case for remaining in the EU. With little over a month remaining before the referendum, an event which could profoundly change our country for the worse, now might be a good time to brainstorm with fellow campaigners on how we might best proceed.

Leavers know their strength is to appeal to gut emotion and take advantage of widespread lack of knowledge of the EU after decades of poor Conservative and Labour leadership and much media misinformation on the issue. Making the case for Remain is complex and is not easily communicated in soundbytes, nor does its often technical arguments make good headlines. Arguing we have the best British trade deal through our EU membership is hardly stirring. Leavers' emotional appeal to nationalism, identity and our glorious past is. If we are to win the hearts and minds of the middle third, we need to inject emotion as well.

Catherine Bearder MEP is absolutely right not to cede the patriotic high ground to Eurosceptics. Remainers are patriots too because we know remaining in the EU is in our national interest. The difference is that the Leavers' nationalism is atavistic whereas ours is inclusive and positive. I regularly use the line "Leavers want to take their country back, we want to take our country forward!"

Leavers argue we cannot tell the future. Whilst this is true, we shouldn't fall into the trap of agreeing with them. Professional forecasters, whether economists or weathermen, are needed to help companies and individuals plan and minimise risk. Forecasters are not scaremongering. The referendum is already causing uncertainty and a downturn in the economy, notably in investment. The status quo of EU membership is the safer option. We know what remain looks like (the present), but Leavers cannot describe, let alone agree, what out looks like. Can the leavers name one study which concludes we would be better off out? When interviewed by Andrew Neil, Kate Hoey MP couldn't.

The Leavers rarely address the real issues. The EU is less corrupt than the misrepresentation of it by the Leavers. They regularly discredit our EU membership by linking it to the Eurozone and Schengen crises. We should refocus the discussion on the actual referendum question. We need to emphasise what we would be leaving is primarily the Single Market, overwhelmingly supported by business, and an array of workplace, social, gender and environmental protections supported by many unions and NGOs. We cannot leave the Eurozone and Schengen because we are not part of these arrangements.

The EU should not be blamed for a host of made in Britain political and policy failures over the past decades. There were problems in housing, education and healthcare long before we joined the EU. The EU, which accounts for only 1% of UK government expenditure, can hardly be blamed for national austerity. On balance, the UK is a fairer and more prosperous country than before we joined.

Although we are able to consolidate, and even gain, support for Remain and liberal values in our campaign, neck and neck opinion polls suggest the wider public is not being won over by reasonable arguments alone. We can only hope that through our continued efforts in debates, on the streets and on the doorstep, enough voters hear our arguments, are registered to vote, and turn out to vote Remain on 23 June.