A campaign doomed to fail
Over 14 months have now passed since the UK voted on the question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”.
Beginning to separate the UK from the EU has taken longer than initially thought but is now very much underway.
Today, in Brussels, the British and EU governments are in the midst of their third round of negotiations to bring about the ‘orderly withdrawal’ of the UK from the EU — disagreeing about everything from divorce bills to what is an acceptable moment to start talking about trade.
The initial shock of the referendum result was tremendous. A kind of panic seized many in its immediate aftermath — a phenomenon not helped by the destabilising but unavoidable resignation of David Cameron. Losing your leader during a period of uncertainty is never recommended. The instability was however compounded by his avertable decision to not allow any government department to prepare contingency plans should the country vote to leave.
The size of the ‘remain’ vote — 48% — could also not be ignored. With the vote so close, concessions would have to be made to avoid a democratic crisis in the country. The new British government, once finally formed in July 2016, had to tread very carefully as it began the process of repatriating judicial, economic and political powers from the EU.
The failure of the Remain campaign has been widely analysed since the vote. I’d recommend Rafael Behr in the Guardian here, Peter Mandelson in the FT here, and Tim Shipman in the Spectator here to get you started.
The Remain campaign chose a primarily economic strategy that sought to paint a vote to leave the EU as a suicidal option in today’s world. Just about every world leader, global corporation and international institution publicly advised against a ‘leave’ vote. Some needed prompting, other didn’t.
To counter the scare stories, the Leave campaign coined the term ‘Project Fear’ to try to discredit the Remain campaign’s scaremongering that filled British newspapers on a daily basis in the lead up to the referendum,
Here are two examples of fear being used by the British government to scare people into voting remain:
David Cameron: “The job you do, the home you live in are at risk. The shock to our economy after leaving Europe would tip the country into recession.”
George Osborne: “A vote to leave would tip our economy into year-long recession with at least 500,000 UK jobs lost”
While hard to quantify, there is no doubt that such scaremongering can be held partially responsible for the widespread fear that set in when the country took the unprecedented decision to leave the European Union.
The toxic brand
One of the most penetrative analyses of the Remain campaign was offered by Daniel Korski, a key advisor to former British Prime Minister David Cameron before and during the referendum campaign. He believes — rightfully in my opinion — that British voters chose to leave the EU because of decisions made long before the campaign began.
The EU brand had become toxic in the eyes of many Brits. Focus groups were largely in agreement. A deep scepticism of the EU had set-in, fostered by years of unaudited EU accounts, unelected EU officials with bloated salaries, wasteful and corrupt institutions, re-taken EU referendums, the euro currency, etc, etc.
To win the referendum, Remain would have to divert the public’s focus away from the EU itself.
Where did EU go?
Some observers were baffled that the UK could fight a gruelling eight month campaign over its membership of the EU while simultaneously maintaining the actual EU away from all the cameras, debates and rallies.
As the photos below demonstrate, Remain were adamant that British voters’ minds should not distracted with memories as Jean-Claude Juncker, Greece, the euro, Brussels, Delors, Maastricht or Ted Heath when it came to voting on June 23rd.
For me, two things in particular stand out in these photos.
Firstly, and maybe less surprisingly, the dominant colour of each event mirrors each party’s own colours. Yellow/orange in the case of the Lib Dems, blue for the Conservatives and red for Labour. Their campaigns appear to be as much about their own party as about the EU. There is nothing ‘EU’ or ‘Europe’ about them at all. Deliberately, neither word appear anywhere.
The second striking aspect in these images is the complete lack of an EU flag or the blue and yellow colours most associated with European integration. There is no clear visual indication in these snapshots that these politicians are calling for you to support the European Union.
The Conservative campaign, which de facto became the official campaign, went one step further and chose the Union Jack’s colours for all their campaign material in an attempt to appear to be the more patriotic choice, while also maintaining the conservative blue front and centre.
The contrast between photos taken before the vote and those taken after at pro-EU rallies like the one below, is striking.
And here lay the problem for Remain. So toxic was the European Union and its symbols that they deemed it necessary to remove any visual references to the EU or Europe from their campaign altogether.
The significance of this shouldn’t be downplayed. The British electorate were, after all, being asked to vote on our membership of the European Union.
The Remain campaign chose not to portray the referendum as a choice between independence and the European Union, but as a choice between the establishment and the fringes — between the security of the status quo and the risks of the unknown.
The strategy may have been sound. A more EU-centric approach could have lead to an even worse result. But, as Peter Mandelson wrote in his FT assessment of the failed campaign, “The public was not offered a future vision of Europe they could believe in and for that we must take responsibility.”
It wasn’t just the flags that were missing
Far more damning than some missing flags though was that not a single European Commissioner was presented to the British people during the entire referendum campaign. No one came to defend the EU’s record or discuss what the future could hold for the political project. There wasn’t a single Question Time, Newsnight or Today Programme appearance.
On top of that, none of the EU’s many presidents, either from the European Commission, European Parliament or European Council, were presented to the British people during the campaign. The opinions of the men in charge of the EU were deemed surplus to requirements. The EU was told to stay the hell away from the campaign, and it duly obliged.
The staggering absurdity of this situation still hasn’t registered with many observers. The UK had a referendum on its future relationship with the EU, without ever hearing from the EU. Much like a company board asking its shareholders to vote for or against a merger with a new commercial partner, without ever introducing the new partner or its ideas to the shareholders.
A campaign doomed to fail
The point here is not to highlight the deceitfulness of the Remain campaign– although some time could be spent doing that. Neither am I taking issue with the reasoning behind the strategy. I do not doubt the focus groups nor the level of scepticism felt towards the European Union in the UK. Had I been tasked with running the Remain campaign I would have found a way to make this referendum about anything but the EU.
No. I make the observations to show just how dysfunctional the UK’s relationship with the European project had become. To show how, even with the most powerful and respected roster of (political, journalistic and economic) salespeople on the planet, the people still weren’t buying it.
The euro crisis, the migration crisis, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The EU seemed unable to govern competently. It also came across as arrogant and inflexible.
The UK failed to stop Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as EU President and to renegotiate with Brussels in the lead up to the referendum. On both occasions, the UK’s weakness within the EU was revealed, at the very time when David Cameron was tying to convince voters that its influence would be better served remaining in the union.
This inability to make the EU concede anything significant in the lead up to the referendum was very damaging to the Remain campaign. It lead many to ponder what hope the UK could have of successfully influencing the EU in the future, if this was how powerless it was today.
If any doubt remained about the powerlessness of the UK, they didn’t last long. In a pernicious statement made the day before the vote, Jean-Claude Juncker said the Prime Minister had already “got the maximum he could receive” from his re-negotiation in February 2016.
Juncker was directly ruling out any future reforms the UK might seek while he remained EU President. What made this so devastating was that David Cameron had just spent months criss-crossing the UK calling on the British people to vote to remain in ‘a reformed Europe’.
The offer was clear. Vote to remain in the EU, and David Cameron would return to Brussels with his strengthened hand and demand reform of the EU as the British electorate would like to see it.
This revealed the fundamental dysfunction at the heart of the UK’s relationship with the EU and one Daniel Korski noted from his time in Number 10: the incompatibility of the British vision for the EU with what the EU was now openly striving to become.