‘Enthusiasm gap’ could make difference in Brexit referendum

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Die EU soll Großbritanniens Wünsche erfüllen und einen brexit verhindern, meint [David/Flickr]

For Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe, a Brexit would be extremely damaging. But as long as the ‘Remain’ campaign lacks enthusiasm, this is a real threat, writes Alina Bârg?oanu.

Alina Bârg?oanu is the Vice-Rector of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) of Bucharest.

Of all the crises confronting the European Union at the moment, there is one which has not yet penetrated the Romanian public sphere. It is the crisis generated by the United Kingdom referendum on whether to remain in the EU. Policy makers and analysts alike find it difficult to frame it as an existential crisis on an equal footing with the euro crisis, the refugee crisis or the crisis in Ukraine. Instead, we tend to consider it more of a media-inflated topic or a strategy by means of which the UK seeks to extract concessions from the European Union. We find it difficult to believe that in a year or two, we could be debating the mother of all European crises.

But a Brexit could happen, despite our feelings of disbelief. I will neither make an inventory of for and against arguments, nor assess the implications of a possible Brexit. Instead, I will make some broader observations.

Let me start by noticing that both the ‘For’ and the ‘Aginst’ camp share the same central messages: the EU status quo is no longer acceptable for Britain, and the EU is in great need of a major reform. The difference between the messages of the two camps has to do with whether British interests are best served in a reformed Union or outside of it, whether it is better for the UK to remain at the negotiation table or leave an unreformable Union.

David Cameron’s recent statement, that he is only interested in two things; “Britain’s prosperity and Britain’s influence”, can easily be classified as belonging to the ‘Against’ camp. Since the main messages are pretty much the same, the communication battle will likely be won based on less substantive issues, having to do with the EU context, with the personalities falling into one camp or another, with the skills of the campaigners, and, above all, with the enthusiasm that these will manage to stimulate in their followers. Out of these, I will dwell on the EU context and on the ‘enthusiasm gap’, since both appear to play in the hands of the ‘Leave’ campaigners.

The EU context represents a challenge to the ‘Remain’ camp. The attempts to regulate the financial sector, the calls for “political union”, and the appeasement towards Russia are all background factors that weigh in favour of the Brexit campaigners. Above all, the refugee crisis provides the most sensible, comprehensible argument in favour of Britain leaving. It may not be completely fair that the EU’s overwhelming complexity is broken down to a single, easily comprehensible topic: the refugees.

I am not saying that this is a simple topic; rather it is a topic which is easy to communicate and which opens itself to so-called easy solutions: let’s regain control over our borders. Austerity, deficits, debt and unemployment are equally important topics that strike a chord with the average citizen. Yet for none of them can the EU be presented as a clear-cut obstacle to their resolution, and none is so easily communicable.

Second, there is an enthusiasm gap between those campaigning to ‘Remain’ and those campaigning to ‘Leave’. In principle, the former camp should have been in an advantageous position because of two referendums biases: it is much easier to campaign for ‘Yes’ and for the status-quo. Both biases are levelled down in this case: there is no explicit ‘No’ campaign, but a ‘Leave’ campaign; and the status-quo of the European Union seems, paradoxically enough, uncertain. Since these two biases are levelled down, the enthusiasm gap is likely to make the difference.

‘Too big, too bossy and too interfering’

And, as of this moment, the Brexiters appear to be more enthusiastic. The way it looks right now, Europe is not a subject to make people – in the United Kingdom or elsewhere – stand up and fight. According to the words of David Cameron, the EU is “too big, too bossy and too interfering”. How can such a Union evoke enthusiasm in people, make them speak up, unleash passionate conversations or encourage them to take a stand – one way or another? When looking at the UK referendum this way, it appears as though enthusiasm is one of the scarcest resources to be found in the European Union right now.

My cursory analysis does not mean that I support a Brexit. I strongly believe that the costs would be huge for the EU and for the UK itself. For Romania and for the whole Eastern Europe, the costs defy measurement. It is either an irony, or a happy coincidence, that it is was a British prime minister, Tony Blair, who aptly said that, had it not existed, the EU should have been invented. At the same time, the truth of this statement does not mean, for the British at least, writing a blank cheque to the European Union.

Europe is worth fighting for, but this fight is worth fighting for the right reasons: for the EU being a progressive and ambitious project that has the capacity to prove relevant to people’s needs, to the needs of the member states and to the needs of the continent overall.

‘Brexit’ talk leaves Bucharest bewildered…

Many Romanians – decision makers, politicians, experts, analysts – are bewildered when talks about the likelihood of a Brexit surface. They ask questions such as “How did we get here?”, “Are the British willing to start the disintegration process?”, “Can they afford to bear that historical burden?” I recently read an article about Marine Le Pen’s rise to power. When asked to interpret this, Michel Onfrey, a prominent French intellectual answered: “I do not resent her so much as I resent those who made her possible”. A similar Brexit-related answer can be imagined: maybe it is not the British who are to be resented, but those who have made this possible. And maybe some of the British arguments – be they from the ‘Remain’ or the ‘Leave’ camp – should be heard and paid attentino to all over the EU. 

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