Why David Cameron could lose his referendum

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Graham Watson

David Cameron’s biggest problem is how little UK citizens know about the EU. Britain’s EU partners best bet would be to speed up the debate on greater economic competitiveness in the hope that Brits will vote to stay, writes Graham Watson.

Sir Graham Watson has been President of the ALDE Party since 2011. He is a British Liberal Democrat, who served as a Member of the European Parliament for South West England from 1994 until 2014 and was the first leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe from 2004–2009. 

Britain’s premier has never really understood Europe. An Atlanticist by predisposition, like his predecessor Gordon Brown, he recognises the importance for Britain of EU membership; yet he is stumbling towards the door marked ‘Exit’ with a dangerous lack of balance. His gamble – that given an all-or-nothing choice, his compatriots will vote to stay in the EU – is beginning to look very risky indeed.

Detailed opinion research by pollster Populus shows that one third of eligible voters are likely to vote to stay and one third to leave and that the outcome will be determined by the 33% (34% to be precise) in the middle. So far, so good, it might seem. This situation prevailed at the time of the UK’s last referendum on Europe (on whether to remain in the EU on the terms renegotiated by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson) in 1975. The difference between then and now is that while opinion for or against membership has hardened among those in the Yes and No camps, it has also hardened among the Don’t Knows.

Of those to be won over, 15% of the population are described by the pollsters as the ‘Hearts versus Heads’ category. Their hearts tell them to leave, because they associate words like ‘future’, ‘power’ and  ‘ambition’ more with leaving EU than with staying, but their heads might be persuaded it is too risky.

And 19% of the population are described as the ‘young apathetic middle’. They don’t associate with Europe or believe EU affects their lives in any way. While less likely to cast a vote at all, it cannot be excluded that they will be moved to make the journey to the polling booths.

This undecided 34% will almost certainly determine the outcome of the poll. Among both its components, politicians are listened to by fewer than 5% and pro-Europeans like me as seen as fanatics. Unlike in 1975, most don’t read newspapers or get their news from the BBC. They learn of the world from social media and TV news headlines from a variety of broadcasters. Yet while the Get Out campaign appeals to them with emotional arguments, the Stay campaign has thus far reiterated only the rather tired rational arguments for membership. It will need to be more imaginative, building a compelling emotional narrative to remain.

The big difference in the forty years from the 1974 referendum to today is that the one-third who need to be convinced are less open minded and less prone to persuasion. Therefore, advise the Conservative Party’s pollsters, they can be persuaded to vote Yes only by a massive campaign about the danger of leaving. Yet similar tactics were employed last year in Scotland during the referendum on staying in the UK; and not only did they very nearly backfire on the Yes campaigners, but the aftermath showed that although the vote was narrowly won, the argument was massively lost.

Cameron has a big problem with his own Party. If, when he returns from December’s European Council meeting with an agreement on new terms of EU membership, his Conservative colleagues (led, perhaps, by increasingly desperate leadership contender Boris Johnson?) decide his deal is not good enough, the referendum is lost before the campaign starts.

He will have a problem too convincing voters that a vote to leave the EU will be the end of the matter. According to one recent poll a rapidly growing number believe a No vote would be followed by a second ‘Are you sure?’ referendum. Precedents in Ireland are not helpful to the UK Prime Minister.

But his biggest problem is with the lack of knowledge of UK citizens about the EU. As Eurostat surveys have revealed, Brits are among the worst informed of EU citizens about how the EU works, about what it does, and about the relationship between EU government and national governments.

Unless and until the UK political class is prepared to inform and persuade, no lasting settlement can be achieved. And the basis for such an information campaign lies in a major and profound study carried out by the last UK government called the Balance of Competences Review. Unsurprisingly, it concludes that the balance of competences between UK and EU government is fair and reasonable and works well for Britain. The prime minister needs to persuade the Tories to read, learn and inwardly digest it.

Until he does, he will struggle to till productively the earth scorched over three or four decades by media moguls Lord Rothermere, Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. Their newspapers and broadcasting stations have portrayed membership of the EU as rule by foreigners, and incompetent rule too. And even the BBC’s reporters are often lamentably ill-informed about the details of the UK-EU relationship.

David Cameron will not be helped by the balance of resources of both sides of the argument. While in 1975 the Yes campaign outspent the No campaign by a factor of twelve to one, new laws restricting the ability of public limited companies to fund election campaigns will hit the coffers of the Yes campaigners. Moreover, electoral rules now cap at an equal level the amount either side can legally spend once the campaign starts. With backing from many of the hedge funds in the City of London (who wish to be regulated by nobody, but least of all by Brussels), the No campaign will be well financed.

Nor will Cameron be helped by the likely situation on the continent. If Greece is still teetering on the brink, Germany struggling to hold back Pegida and would-be immigrants still massing at Calais, many in the UK people may be tempted to pull the blankets over their heads and wish the world would go away.

The best continental reaction in this situation would be for Britain’s EU partners to speed up the debate on greater economic competitiveness, to express hope that Brits will vote to stay, but to stress that continental partners will respect the democratic choice of the UK electorate; and for the Norwegians and the Swiss to say loud and clear why being outside is a bad idea.

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