Peter Bye

Own goals can play a critical part in football. Northern Ireland has just been knocked out of the Euro 2016 tournament by Wales; the only goal was an own goal. I suspect there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the dressing room afterwards.

The UK has, however, scored the own goal to end all own goals by voting 51.9% to 48.1% in a referendum to leave the EU. Perhaps the only bigger one was Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum in the first place. The UK is a parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscite-based one. On decisions of this significance and complexity, few of us have the time or resources to do the required investigation and analysis – see Richard Dawkins’ view[1], for example. And he is hardly an intellectual slouch.

The campaign has been bitter and divisive. Both sides have taken liberties with the ‘facts’ and used dodgy statistics. The Remain campaign is certainly guilty of this. For example, they suggested that the cost of leaving would be GBP 4,300 per household. The figure is derived by dividing an estimate of GDP decline by the number of households. It’s much more complicated than that[2].

But the transgressions of the Remain campaign pale into insignificance compared with the Leave activists. The way the EU works has been consistently misrepresented amid much flowery talk of democracy and sovereignty. Liverpool University’s Professor Michael Dougan, who specialises in European constitutional law, says that the Leave campaign is guilty of ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale’[3].

A simple example is the lie – there is no other word for it – that we pay GBP 350 million per week (about GBP 18 billion per year) into the EU. This is a gross figure. After the UK’s rebate and EU payments to the UK, the net amount is less than GBP 9 billion[4]. And in any event, a drop in government revenue from taxation of just 2% would more than wipe out the saving.

So what happens next? The UK has to have a relationship with the EU; what should it look like? Possibly because it comprises different factions with different ideas, the Leave campaign has never come up with anything approaching a coherent view for the future. This is surprising given that some of the leavers have spent years fighting for Brexit. Wishful thinking has prevailed to a spectacular degree. Those pointing out the problems have been accused of talking the country down.

Now that the leavers have prevailed in the referendum, they are faced with having to decide what they want. The country needs to have a clear position so the Brexiteers have to decide and agree something concrete. The chances of getting anything close to what we currently have but with immigration controls and no subscription are a fantasy. At this stage, we need the EU members more than they need us.

Here are three reasons why the EU will be tough.

First, the UK has played significant role in influencing the shape of the EU. Other members have made concessions, in the form of UK opt-outs for instance, and have modified policy to suit the UK’s views. There will be considerable resentment at the decision to walk away, especially as there are so many pressing problems that need solving co-operatively.

The second reason is that the EU is anxious to show that members can’t just leave and keep all the benefits without any of the responsibilities. An easy deal could prompt other member states to opt for exit.

Finally, a future relationship is likely to require the agreement of all the remaining 27 EU members. As much of the case for leaving was built on stoking up fears about immigration, especially from Eastern Europe, the leavers can hardly expect favours from those they have effectively insulted.

The best possible deal would be something like Norway’s. It has access to the single market, which will be essential for selling services, the UK’s greatest strength and most profitable export. But Norway has no voice in making the rules. It has to accept them, including free movement of people, and pay a substantial subscription. Applied to the UK, the result would be no control over free movement, which has been the basis of most of the leavers’ case, but with greatly reduced powers to influence the EU. And we’d have to pay for the privilege.

One of the most depressing features of the Leave campaign has been its anti-intellectualism. Arguments and facts advanced by experts to point out problems have been dismissed as untrue. No counter evidence or arguments are advanced. Statements such as ‘they got it wrong before’ are used to suggest that expert views are not trustworthy.

Even worse, the credibility of individual experts has been attacked, often in a personal way[5]. For example, in my first piece on this site last year[6] I cited the case of a report by Dustmann & Frattini of UCL on the fiscal impact of immigration[7], and how the integrity of the authors had been questioned by a UKIP representative appearing in BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions?’.

But the prize for the most grotesque piece of anti-intellectualism must surely go to Boris Johnson for dragging Hitler into the discussion. He suggested that attempts to create an integrated Europe by the likes of Napoleon and Hitler failed and so will the EU. He seems not to have noticed that the two dictators made their attempts by force rather than the open and free cooperation of the EU. However, Mr Johnson’s primary motivation for embracing the Leave campaign appears to be his ambition to be Prime Minister. It is after all strange that the person who was Mayor of London, one of the most pro-EU parts of the country, should adopt the opposite point of view.

Now that the referendum is over, we must all hope for the best possible outcome from future negotiations. I would be delighted to be wrong in my view that the UK and the EU will be worse off.

Notes and sources

[1] Dawkins’ view can be found at https://richarddawkins.net/2016/06/richard-dawkins-ignoramuses-should-have-no-say-on-our-eu-membership-and-that-includes-me/

[2] For an explanation, see https://fullfact.org/europe/4300-question-would-leaving-eu-really-make-every-household-worse/

[3] See Prof Dougan’s lecture on the UK and the EU at https://www.youtube.com/embed/USTypBKEd8Y

[4] For an explanation, see https://fullfact.org/europe/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/

[5] See Prof Dougan’s lecture at the link shown above, for example.

[6] The piece can be found at http://peterbye.blogactiv.eu/2015/04/07/can-we-please-respect-facts/

[7] For a video and a link to the report, see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1114/051114-economic-impact-EU-immigration

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