Britain's Great EU Debate Hasn't Been So Great

Propaganda wars.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

Opinion polls say Britain’s vote on June 23 on whether to leave the European Union will be close. That’s disturbing: Voting to stay is the safer, wiser choice. The referendum debate should have promoted consensus on the point -- but it hasn’t, partly because the quality of discussion has been a letdown.

Campaigners on both sides of the debate have claimed that a complex issue is really pretty simple. The government-led Remain campaign says Brexit would be a catastrophe; the Leave campaign says it would be the dawn of a new golden age. Both campaigns have confused voters, inflamed prejudices, muddled the facts -- and changed few minds. The intelligent debate that was needed hasn’t happened. So much for direct democracy.

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The Leave side has been the worse offender, often brazenly misrepresenting the most basic facts.

Former mayor of London Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit spokesman, said EU law banned children under 8 from blowing up balloons, prohibited the recycling of tea bags and limited the size of coffins. The chairman of a parliamentary committee exposed all this as fiction in a March hearing.

The Leave campaign’s claim that the EU has “given Turkey the nod” to become a full member no doubt appealed to voters alarmed by immigration, but it’s misleading at best. Turkey was declared eligible to join the EU in 1997, but negotiations are still at an early stage and all members will have to agree before they conclude -- so the U.K. has a veto.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove, another leading Leave campaigner, said leaving the EU would allow Britain to “take back the 350 million pounds we give to the EU every week.” That's wrong, too. The figure ignores the rebate the U.K. gets up front, as well as the other payments and grants Britain receives. And Gove's claim that leaving the EU would boost spending on Britain’s National Health Service was so egregious that that it caused one Leave supporter and Tory MP to defect

Worst of all, the Leave side has failed to say what Brexit would mean -- starting with the trade arrangements that would be needed to replace Britain’s rights and obligations as part of the EU. The Leave campaigners are divided on this, so uncertainty is all they can offer.

Such a weak campaign should have been easy to defeat, but the Remain side has made no progress in the polls since the debate began. That’s partly because it has relied too much on scaremongering. Prime Minister David Cameron’s May 9 suggestion that leaving the EU would threaten peace and stability in Europe was greeted with incredulity.

The Remain campaign has used the same kind of hyperbole when it comes to the economy. The economic risks of exit are real -- study after study has made this clear -- but the idea that Britain would be doomed if it left isn’t plausible. Life in Switzerland goes on, somehow. (And if the government thinks Britain would be crazy to leave, voters might wonder why it called a referendum in the first place.) The Remain campaign has failed to address voters’ concerns over immigration and has been suspiciously quiet about the further reforms that Europe needs if the union is to work well for its citizens.

There’s every chance of a surge of support for the status quo as the June 23 vote approaches. One must hope so: Voting to stay is the right choice. But it’s a shame the referendum campaigns have done so little to help voters think clearly and choose wisely.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.