The Leave campaign won the EU referendum based on racist incitement, audacious lies and unrealistic promises it never intended to keep. Remain campaigners and voters have to acknowledge that they played a major role in enabling Brexit, writes Ragnar Weilandt.
Ragnar Weilandt is a doctoral research fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles and University of Warwick.
David Cameron not only misused a referendum of historical proportions to try to pacify the Tory party, he also approached it with an irresponsible naivety. For his entire political life he had vilified the EU and toyed with the idea of leaving it. Before the “renegotiation” of Britain’s role in Europe, he indicated that he would support Brexit himself unless Britain was granted a “better deal”. Completely misjudging his fellow European leaders’ attitudes towards yet another act of British cherry-picking, he got but a few minor and rather symbolic concessions. Unsurprisingly, his attempt to sell them as a major win was met with ridicule. So were the doomsday scenarios he suddenly painted for Britain outside of the Union. And while one might criticise Leave voters for their ignorance of the EU, one can hardly blame them for not buying into Cameron’s sudden change of heart and tone.
However, the Leave campaign’s success has much deeper roots. For decades, British political elites have diverted anger and frustration directed at them and their policies towards Brussels and European legislation. Left-wingers have flirted with Eurosceptic stereotypes, creating the illusion that the lack of socialism in the UK is due to the EU – rather than the fact that no socialist leader has won a parliamentary majority in the past 40 years. They never explained how the EU protects the rights of workers, consumers and the environment. They never acknowledged that the EU has actually been a left-wing corrective to British neoliberalism.
Meanwhile right-wingers raged on and on about EU red tape allegedly suffocating the British economy, or EU migration allegedly straining the welfare state and increasing crime rates – claims that have been widely refuted. They never made an effort to explain how the introduction of common legislation for the entire EU market actually reduced red tape for British exporters. They didn’t remind voters how EU legislation made airline fares and roaming costs plummet. They never pointed out that individual examples of incompetence and silly legislative proposals can be found in any administration, including the British one. Nobody reminded voters of the BBC’s “Yes Minister” sitcom, whose hilarious tales about the British civil service were largely inspired by real events.
Few highlighted EU migrants’ net contribution to the welfare state. When individual problems linked to immigration hit the headlines, nobody dared to point out that hundreds of thousands of British retirees in Spain don’t make the remotest effort to integrate. And nobody dared to remind the public of the reputation young male English tourists and football fans have across Europe.
Behind closed doors, many British leaders spoke quite differently about Europe. But hardly any politician was willing to invest political capital on making the case for Europe. Few challenged the misperceptions, myths and outright lies that tabloids controlled by Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre or Richard Desmond spread and that determine the British debate. By the time the political elites realised that Brexit could actually happen, it was far too late to reverse the narratives that had evolved over the past decades.
Similarly, many other prominent voices discovered their enthusiasm for Europe only shortly before the vote. Such as celeb chef Jaimie Oliver, who came out for Remain days before the referendum. Speaking to a parliamentary committee a few years earlier he sounded rather different.
“I’ve got nothing nice to say about the EU at all. I really haven’t. I think it saps the life and icing off our farmers and common sense and clarity. You remember when the cucumber came in? If it’s over that much of a bend, then we can’t sell it. How dare they? How dare they?”
The British farmers Oliver was referring to receive up to £3 billion annually in EU subsidies. Months before his rant, the European Commission had proposed to abolish the infamous cucumber regulation. Much to the dismay of the member states and the farming industry. Because the cucumber standards might have sounded quite funny, but they were actually very useful. Thus they ended up surviving in various national laws and continue to be met voluntarily by most producers even after the EU abolished them. But this didn’t make for a catchy headline in The Daily Mail.
For years, the British debate on the EU has been shaped by badly-informed people with very strong opinions and better-informed elites instrumentalising misperceptions to score cheap points. Opinion leaders as diverse as Owen Jones, Alan Sugar or Jeremy Clarkson ridiculed or scapegoated the EU for years before eventually making spectacular last-minute U-turns.
Similarly, many Remain voters contributed to the mocking and scapegoating of Brussels. Few ever attempted to really understand how the EU works and what the UK’s membership actually involves. Few questioned, let alone countered the misrepresentations and lies promulgated by tabloids and consolidated by opinion leaders. Most Remain voters made their decision based on the notion that membership of an obscure, hyper-bureaucratic and slightly tedious European Union is some sort of necessary evil. Such narratives did not exactly help to win the hearts and minds of those on the fence.
You reap what you sow. Decades of misinforming and misrepresenting could not be undone within a short and lacklustre campaign. By letting ignorance and misperception of the EU flourish, campaigners and voters for Remain enabled a Leave campaign completely detached from reality to get away with its lies and false promises. And to eventually succeed.