Brexit and Remain Camps Are Misleading Voters, Lawmakers Say

Updated on
  • Commons Treasury Committee slams both sides in EU vote debate
  • ‘Lurid claims and counter-claims’ making public ‘fed up’

Morning Meeting: The Risk of Brexit

Both campaigns in Britain’s debate over EU membership are guilty of making misleading assertions about the costs and benefits of a so-called Brexit, a cross-party panel of U.K. lawmakers said, calling for an amnesty on “bogus claims.”

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Vote Leave’s core message that Britain will save 350 million pounds ($500 million) a week by deciding to withdraw from the EU in next month’s referendum is “highly misleading,” the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee said in a report published in London on Friday.

The panel also used the word “misleading” to describe a statement about EU-dependent jobs by the rival Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. It said Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had made a “mistaken assertion” when he said every household would be 4,300 pounds a year worse off outside the EU by 2030.

“The arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims made by both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ sides is not just confusing the public, it is impoverishing political debate,” the committee chairman, Andrew Tyrie, said in a statement. “Today is the first day of the main campaign. It needs to begin with an amnesty on misleading, and at times bogus, claims.”

Public Frustration

The lawmakers’ report reflects increasing public frustration that the debate over Britain’s EU membership has descended into insults and exaggerated claims about the country’s potential future outside the 28-nation bloc. That frustration was highlighted by audience members in the first full-scale television debate of the campaign, broadcast by the BBC Thursday evening.

With fewer than four weeks to go until the June 23 vote, polling is inconclusive, with some phone surveys showing a wide lead for “Remain,” but online polls often indicating the race is too close to call.

The “Leave” campaign came in for the strongest criticism, not least for its use of the 350 million-pound number, which is emblazoned on its campaign bus and mentioned at every opportunity by advocates of a Brexit, from former London Mayor Boris Johnson to the most prominent anti-EU Labour lawmaker, Gisela Stuart.

The panel criticized Brexit campaigners for still using the figure, even after it was questioned by the Office for National Statistics, which says Britain’s net contribution to the EU averaged 7.1 billion pounds a year from 2010 through 2014 -- or about 135 million pounds a week.

‘Very Unfortunate’

“It is very unfortunate that they have chosen to place this figure at the heart of their campaign,” the panel wrote. “Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its ‘very significant responsibility’ and the ‘gravity of the choice facing the British people.”’

The panel also questioned figures cited by the Brexit campaigners on the costs of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and of complying with “burdensome” EU regulations. It slammed assertions by the “Remain” side that 3 million British jobs are “dependent” on the EU and that a Brexit could raise the cost of imports by at least 11 billion pounds. It criticized Osborne for repeatedly using the 4,300-pound estimate on the cost to households of leaving.

“It is disappointing that the Treasury and the chancellor place so much emphasis on a single figure,” the committee said. “Any single number that purports to encapsulate the effects of Brexit can be misunderstood.”

Costlier Trade

The panel predicted that whatever relationship the U.K. negotiates with the other 27 member states in the event of a Brexit, access to trade with the bloc would be lower. The costs of trade would likely rise, and it isn’t certain Britain would be able to reach an agreement that preserved long-term access to the services market.

Maintaining “passporting” arrangements enabling banks and other financial-services companies to operate across borders “would probably require the U.K. to show equivalence with EU regulation,” the panel said, concluding that will “limit” Britain’s ability to set its own regulatory framework.

“A loss of passporting would not be fatal for the U.K.’s financial services industry,” according to the lawmakers. “But it would be plausible to suppose that some relocation of activity, particularly by foreign banks that currently base their European operations in London, might take place.”

The report was agreed unanimously by the panel, whose members include lawmakers campaigning on both sides of the debate, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative who supports a Brexit, and Labour’s Wes Streeting, who is campaigning for a “Remain” vote.

(Updates with details from report starting in ninth paragraph.)
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