Trying to maintain neutrality in this debate feels like tap-dancing on the edge of a volcano. One of the reasons for this is that being neutral means different things to different people. Does it mean that 50% of the material should be pro-leave and 50% pro-remain? That every point which gives weight to a particular argument must be countered with one that takes it away? The problem with this sort of idea is that the referendum debate itself isn’t neutral.
We are choosing between a situation which is familiar yet imperfect, and one which is unfamiliar. In this case, if we are truly interested in gaining a full and equal understanding of the arguments either way rather than simply reinforcing our existing views, time should be spent considering both the imperfections of the familiar option and the possibilities within the unfamiliar one. We should strive to understand the pros and cons of both sides, even when one is more complicated than the other.
We are about to vote in a referendum on our EU membership in which the government will not tell us what it plans to do if we vote to leave. The government has taken a position in a referendum it dictates the terms of, and refuses to talk seriously about the opposite one. In fact, they haven’t said anything about their post-referendum plans whatever the result. We can all agree that if the government is not making plans for an EU exit then it is not functioning in our best interests. Of course they are making plans, they have to be. But then, why are they doing it behind closed doors? If the plans they are making will lead to the disastrous things they keep telling us about, wouldn’t it bolster support for remain if we knew about it? Are they not telling us what they are thinking because it would bolster support for leave?
This skew of information is the root cause of this whole debate seeming so impenetrable and so hard to navigate. The aim of this campaign is to make the case for and against leaving the EU and staying in it. To present 5 or 6 scenarios and the potential impacts isn’t really good enough. We need to consider what is actually likely to happen, which means making predictions.
If we vote to leave the EU on the 23rd June, the terms of our exit will be negotiated by a government which fought for us to remain, and a government that will do everything in its power to mitigate any negative effects to our economy or anything else. If we trust the government to act accordingly, we should have faith that they will pursue the path of highest continuity and least resistance– the strategy that mostly resembles remaining in the EU. This would mean re-joining EFTA as soon as possible and taking the Norway option.
Both leavers and remainers might find this difficult because the Norway option is not the one that they want. Critics will say that we don’t want to be like Norway, it gains us nothing, it would be EU membership in all but name, and they may be right. But this would be making the regular mistake of seeing Brexit as an event rather than a process. Whatever reasons you may have for wanting to leave, and even if you want to remain, this option is the easiest and least disruptive method of exiting the EU that exists. The legal framework for doing it has existed since 1994. If you want to stop immigration, or think we should negotiate bespoke trade agreements, or you want us to be more like Turkey, you should think about achieving these things in maybe five or ten years, not on June 24th. Think about minimising short term disruption, and maximising long term gains.
If this is the option the government is planning for, it seems as if they won’t tell us about it because it might hurt the remain cause. One would think that the leave campaigns would jump on this opportunity to increase their support, but instead both Vote Leave and Grassroots Out have rejected the Norway option, and indeed all the other options you may have read about.
“First, not in chronological order, we will repeal section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972. This is Parliament’s instruction to our courts to treat EU law as supreme. We will repeal it and restore democratic government.”
Their plan, in simple terms, is to immediately sever all ties between the UK and the EU and unilaterally break all of our treaty obligations. This puts us in totally uncharted waters, it removes the obligation for the EU to negotiate with us; it breaks us from all of our existing EU trade agreements, and means the EU immediately imposes its common external tariffs on us. It essentially takes every piece of EU related legislation and throws it into the shredder. We would have to start again from scratch. This is economic suicide and no sensible government would consider it. Yet the people who intend to represent entire leave voter base won’t take any other suggestion seriously. If they lose and we vote to stay in because people are scared of what might happen, they will only have themselves to blame.
The remain campaigns aren’t being allowed off the hook here either. They know that if it comes to it, there is a relatively painless path out of the EU that is preferential to all others and that it is the one we would be most likely to take. Like the government however, to reveal this would mean they would have to stop endlessly repeating uncertainty and dubious statistical arguments and start coming up with some more passionate and endearing ones. If they lose and we vote to leave because people are not hopeful we can achieve anything substantial by staying in, they will only have themselves to blame.
If the government loses and we vote to leave; and if the reality of taking the path of least resistance enrages the leave voter base who were expecting a more devastating break up, they will only have themselves to blame.
The cloud of confusion over the leave side is systemic and it makes productive debate almost impossible. Whatever you believe, you should be annoyed by this; we are being presented with a false choice. This is bad news for anybody who wants to put themselves in the best position to make a rational decision. Remain advocates, perhaps even more so than leavers, should do their utmost to have an understanding of the best course of action if the result does not go their way. This is very difficult when we don’t have the relevant information as to what the plan is.
If the result of the referendum is not your preferred one, it would be in your best interest to have an idea of what you hope to achieve and the possibilities available for doing so. Otherwise, it may fall to people who do not share your views to dictate the direction of travel. Business will not halt on June 24th, and whilst we are perhaps not being given the full tool set we need to make a decision, we must be prepared for whatever may need to happen in the following years. Everybody, make sure you vote, and make sure you’re ready, whatever the result.