EU Referendum

Can the PM win an EU campaign of fear?

David Cameron
David Cameron is currently attempting to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union. Credit: PA

So as I said on the News at Ten last night, the prime minister will be fighting a startlingly Eurosceptic campaign to remain in the EU – on the overwhelmingly likely assumption that he recommends we stay in (probably in just a few weeks)

The “Bremain” campaign – as it is unfelicitously being styled – is calculated to be stupendously uninspiring.

On the prime minister’s version, as disclosed on the Today Programme this morning, it will be based on deep-seated mistrust of Brussels (“I am suspicious of Brussels”, Mr Cameron felt moved to tell us).

But the strongly negative argument will be that our economy will suffer if we leave – we’ll be poorer – and less able to protect ourselves against terrorism and other external threats.

It will be a campaign of fear.

Thus, all the reforms sought by the prime minister – limiting benefits paid to migrants, protecting our banks from being duffed up by members of the euro in their quest for economic and financial solidarity – are designed to prevent the putative beast of the EU destroying our independence and way of life.

David Cameron
David Cameron pictured with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Credit: Reuters

So for example, David Cameron confirmed that the Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, has been asked to look at Boris Johnson’s notion – that there should be a second act of Parliament, to dovetail with the European Union Act 2011, affirming that the Westminster Parliament is sovereign.

That earlier legislation stipulated there would always be a referendum here if an EU treaty change resulted in sovereignty being transferred from the UK.

And it also made what some would see as the fatuous point that EU law only takes effect in the UK because Parliament says it does.

The arch Eurosceptics would say this claim to the primacy of Westminster is fatuous, because it is equivalent to saying the Queen is the real power in the land in that she has to give her assent to all legislation (please remind me when the Queen last drafted a bill and forced it through parliament).

Naturally I therefore asked a senior member of the government yesterday whether this new attempt to say that Parliament rules, and isn’t in many areas just the cipher of the European Council and European Parliament, would be any more meaningful than the 2011 act.

The answer was that making these symbolic gestures matters. Which seemed to me to be something of an evasion.

EU flags
Britain’s future in the European Union ‘club’ is uncertain. Credit: Reuters

So here’s what none of us can judge.

Are we a nation that will be bothered to stay in a club, if the prime minister tells us that the club is pretty stinky, but there’s a private room we can have to ourselves quite a lot of the time, and when we’re forced to eat with the rest of the members we can have our own bottle of ketchup?

And if we do take his advice that remaining in the club is the lesser of two evils, and opinion polls suggest we will, won’t that bring the risk of massive disappointment afterwards, and a further surge in Euroscepticism – just as the Scottish referendum underpinned the subsequent surge in support for the SNP?

Or to put it another way, a wholly negative campaign to stay in the EU may not achieve the prime minister’s aim of settling our relationship with Europe once and for all.

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