Winning the student vote

The announcement that university vice-chancellors are launching a campaign to encourage students to vote to stay in the EU doesn’t come as any great surprise. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission recently admitted to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir that the EU had become “an élitist project.” Academics have always been far keener on the EU than the average man in the street and some of them, of course, are very much part of that élite. Others are only concerned about their particular field of study. They have welcomed the grants provided by the EU but are highly unlikely to have any idea about how it operates and possibly may never have understood that the European project is about creating a federal superstate.

However, the decision of the university vice-chancellors to throw their weight behind remaining in the EU is a wake-up call for supporters of withdrawal. Last Monday’s statement by Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of the Universities UK group, when dissected, does not contain any unanswerable arguments for staying within the EU but there must be a sensible exit strategy on offer if it is to be countered.

She said, “The case for staying in Europe is about ensuring the future prosperity of the UK. It’s about maximising the chances of new discoveries that enhance the society in which we live, it’s about the UK’s standing in the world, it’s about British jobs, and it’s about opportunities for British people now and in the future.” Well, if she still believes in the myth that three million jobs depend on our EU membership, she is distinctly behind the times. While relying on WTO rules to preserve our trade the day we leave the EU would indeed damage the UK’s future prosperity and threaten jobs, the EEA/EFTA route (or a “Shadow EEA” agreement if this option is taken away from us by the EU’s “associate member” plan) will preserve UK jobs and will be, at worst, economically neutral in the short term and beneficial in the long term. Care is needed here, however, as the amount of “red tape” we could cut after leaving the EU is far less than some supporters of independence might claim, given that some regulation placed on our statute books by the EU originates with international bodies of which we would still be a member. Then what about the UK’s standing in the world? This is one of the daftest arguments the Europhiles have yet come up with. Why on earth should anyone respect a nation which can be subject to fines and legal action at the whim of unelected foreign bureaucrats? At the end of the day, the EU is a club of nations that do not have enough self-confidence to run their own affairs as sovereign nation states. It is hardly going to diminish our standing in the world to stand proudly on our own two feet again. After all, we speak the world’s most spoken language as our mother tongue, we can regain our own seat on organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and we are still either the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world, depending on whose figures you read. An independent UK would hardly be an insignificant cypher on the world map.

She added, “By supporting collaboration and breaking down international barriers, the EU helps universities to carry out cutting-edge research and make discoveries that improve people’s lives.” And why should not an independent UK encourage its universities to continue to be in the cutting edge of research and co-operate with their foreign counterparts in the EU and beyond? The arguments do not stack up.

So why is the academic world so keen on the EU when the main thrust of its arguments can easily be countered? Most likely because they haven’t actually heard the counter-arguments but perhaps more imprtantly, some of the rhetoric used in the debate thus far has antagonised them. Immigration is a real concern to some, but strong language replete with anti-immigrant sentiment is not going to go down well in any academic institution. Log on to any university website and scroll down a list of professors and lecturers in most departments and you will find a very international group of people. Of course, our universities also attract many students from overseas, including from the EU and plenty of UK students are taking their degrees in universities on the Continent – in some cases, for no other reason than because the fees are less! The withdrawalist movement therefore needs to emphasise that there would be no reason for an independent UK to pull out of the EU’s Erasmus student mobility programme – after all, Switzerland, the EEA countries and Turkey are also members. It’s all about the tone of the argument, in other words. Withdrawal must not sound like pulling up the drawbridge. To neutralise the pro-EU campaign in our universities, we must recognise that our objective is to win over a very cosmopolitan group of people who do not share our visceral loathing of the European project and do not see it for the great evil that is unquestionably is. Such is our hatred of the EU that we would love to press some button that would instantaneously sever our links with it and leave us in a purely free trade relationship along the lines between the EU and, say South Korea or Mexico. This, whether we like it or not, is cloud cuckoo land. Disentangling over 40 years of integration isn’t going to happen overnight and even if we were able to win 80-90% of our fellow countrymen round to unconditional support for independence, a slow, gradual divorce is the only way of extricating ourselves while maintaining our prosperity. There will, of necessity, be in the short term (and in some cases, the medium term too) a need to keep much EU legislation on our statute books which we would ideally love to confine to the dustbin as soon as possible.

And thankfully, the sheer practicalities which must restrain the more gung-ho supporters of withdrawal should also lead them round to supporting the only exit strategy most likely to command widespread popular support. After all, we have one objective and one only – to win the referendum and get out of the EU. Opinion polls show us as being the underdogs at the moment and it is clear we cannot win round “soft” supporters of membership or the undecided with any argument that smacks of isolationism or anything that might remotely be conceived as racism. Several university debating societies are already inviting speakers to take part in debates on EU withdrawal and we should gladly rise to the challenge. Sociologists claim that many under-30 are far more individualistic and sceptical about the welfare state and even the NHS than their parents’ generation. They are cynical about big government and grandiose schemes by politicians. Such people ought to be natural opponents of a behemoth such as the EU, but not many of them currently are. We therefore need to hone our message; to get back to fundamentals and say far more about the essential anti-democratic and élitist nature of the European project while at the same time emphasising that we are keen to engage with the whole world, including the EU. If we can begin to win debates on university campuses, the tactics we use may subsequently prove helpful in winning over the population at large.

Photo by Gwyrosydd

The choreography begins

David Cameron headed off for a so-called “summit” with other EU heads of state in Riga, Latvia on Friday morning. It is the first gathering of EU heads of state he has attended since the General Election and has been billed as the start of his official bid to “renegotiate” the UK’s relationship with the EU. He stated that it would be a challenging time:- “All I will say is that there will be ups and downs. You will hear one day that ‘this is possible’; the next day something is impossible.”

However, it is hard not to be cynical. Cameron is looking to emulate Harold Wilson’s subterfuge in 1975:- a few minor concessions dressed up as a major victory followed by an attempt to con the electorate in a referendum. To strengthen his propaganda team, Cameron has brought in Mats Persson, formerly one of the directors of his favourite think tank, Open Europe. In all probability, the choreography has most likely been agreed in advance between the Prime Minister and the key players – Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, the French President François Hollande and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Cameron’s “shopping list” includes, among other things, a clamp-down on benefits for EU migrants, an opt-out from “ever closer union”, safeguards for the City, guaranteed access to the single market for the ‘outs’, an end to protectionism in services, and powers for national parliaments to issue “red cards” on EU laws.

However, he adds that “Mr Cameron has gone quiet on demands for wholesale repatriation of powers or for a whittling down of the ‘acquis’ – the EU’s vast corpus of directives and regulations – knowing that both are anathema for Germany.” It appears that he has sounded out the top figures in the EU on what ground they are prepared to give and after going through the façade of “tough talking”, all will be sweetness and light when the “negotiations” are finally complete – a great triumph for the Prime Minister, no doubt.

However, the article also points out that securing some agreement with Mr Juncker and the French and German leaders is by no means the end of the story. It quotes Denis McShane, the former European Minister, who said, “People elsewhere – not just in Paris and Brussels – are frustrated about being taken for a quantité négligeable (lightweights) by arrogant British negotiators. For better or for ill, the EU is a system where the institutions matter, as do all member states, large and small. Even if Merkel is the dominant force, she does not always get it her way.”

There is also another problem facing Mr Cameron – the Tory MPs who want to see us leave the EU. Expressions of dissent were conspicuous by their absence during the election campaign as the remorseless Tory election machine sliced through the Lib Dem heartlands in the south of England. This does not mean they have changed their minds. While pressure is being applied to them not to “rock the boat” as negotiations begin, it is hard to see the consensus lasting for long. One CIB Committee member, with some inside knowledge of the workings of the Tory party, expected the uneasy truce to last only a matter of weeks.

We shall see, but given the slender majority Mr Cameron enjoys, the withdrawalist MPs will have some considerable clout. They will, of course, need to display the same determination to stand up to the whips as they did in the previous parliament, but if they can get themselves organised, they will provide a formidable obstacle to any attempt by the Prime Minister to repeat Wilson’s smoke-and mirrors trick. Business for Britain employed Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s former Special Advisor, to conduct focus groups in 2014 on vote in any future referendum. His conclusion showed how the underlying support for EU membership could easily be reduced in the face of a good “out” campaign:- “If those who want to leave the EU neutralise the economic arguments then the people will vote to leave as there is nothing else to support membership.”

Last year, one Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stated that the economic arguments for staying in do not stack up given the right exit strategy:- “We can leave the political project and enter into a truly economic project with Europe via the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the EEA. We would still enjoy the trading benefits of the EU, without the huge cost of the political baggage,” he said last November. That, ultimately, is what business really wants. We have never been interested in the political agenda at the heart of the EU project. If Mr Cameron really wants to opt Britain out of “ever closer union”, he should follow his former Environment Secretary’s advice, invoke Article 50 and bring his pointless jet-setting across Europe to an end.

Two and a half years to save our country

The surprise result of the 2015 General Election means that the UK will be holding a referendum on its membership of the European Union in less than two and a half years’ time. David Cameron’s victory will now be concentrating many withdrawalist minds on how to achieve an “Out” vote in that referendum and the scale of the challenge becomes apparent when one of the tactics which propelled the Conservatives to an unexpected victory will be used to encourage our countrymen to stay within a “reformed” EU – fear.

The last-minute nature of the swing to the Tories and the widely-reported indecision on the part of many voters don’t exactly point to an enthusiastic endorsement for David Cameron. Rather, the prospects of a Labour government propped up with SNP support made many waverers decide to back the devil they knew rather than the more frightening devils they did not. The bottom line, however, is that however grudgingly many voters put their crosses in the Tories’ box, the scare tactics paid off.

Yesterday, in a piece in the Daily Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard pointed out that a referendum held in 2020 or after would be more easily won by supporters of withdrawal. Had Labour won the election, the shock of defeat “would have “flush(ed) out the last EU dreamers and leave a post-Cameron party with even less tolerance for the posturing of Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker….There is a high likelihood that such a party would let it rip on euroscepticism while in opposition and then come roaring back in five years’ time given that the most likely scenario would have been the replacement of David Cameron by a more eurosceptic Tory leader.” This is a fair point, although his proposal of Boris Johnson for this role is distinctly unconvincing. Another point which would have favoured 2020 for the referendum is that it gives us longer to address the disunity and disorganisation of the withdrawalist movement. We have right on our side and a far better case than supporters of our EU membership, but we are not winning the argument and time is short.

However, there is still everything to play for. We can win the battle for our country’s freedom and while this is not the time for naïve optimism, there are a number of factors which could swing opinion in favour of withdrawal.

Firstly, while the Tory party held together with an impressive stage-managed unity during the campaign, with Cameron’s many critics biting their tongues, this does not mean that they are any happier with his policies than they were a couple of years back when his leadership looked to be on the line. Especially given Cameron’s stated intention to pass over anyone advocating withdrawal from the EU when it comes to choosing his cabinet, leaving him effectively with only the dregs of his party to choose from, the rebellious backbenchers will come roaring back with a vengeance before too long. With the Tories’ majority so small, they will wield a considerable degree of power and if they can coalesce around a sensible exit strategy, such as “Flexcit”, this will add some considerable weight to the “Out” campaign.

Secondly, the anti-politics mood has not gone away. The electorate may have given a clear signal about who they want (and don’t want) to govern them, but this does not mean the profound disconnect so many people feel towards politics and politicians of all parties has gone away. The withdrawalist movement has so far failed to harness this sense of remoteness from the corridors of power. In particular, the individualism of the younger generation ought to make them natural opponents of something as remote and bureaucratic as the EU. Admittedly, the presence of pro-EU propaganda in schools has not helped, but winning the younger generation for the cause of independence is not impossible if the message is packaged appropriately.

Thirdly, the EU itself, for all the money it may pour into the “in” campaign, is not going to change its ways, especially under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Commission. There will be plenty of events in Brussels which, if handled correctly, can re-kindle the fires of euroscepticism within the UK population. The bottom line is that we don’t fit and never will. Only fear and ignorance stand in the way of withdrawal.

Finally, and unusally for this website, a quote from the Guardian. Commenting on why the Tories’ strategy of fear was so successful, Rafael Behr wrote, “that kind of tactic only works when it plays to underlying weakness in the opposition offer.” Divided and disorganised the withdrawalist movement may be, but if we can get our act together and sell both a watertight exit strategy and a vision for a newly independent UK, there is nothing weak about the withdrawal offer. It is only natural common sense. We are only seeking to encourage our compatriots to vote for something that will be very good for them. Can we spring an even greater upset than this morning’s results in late 2017? Yes we can.

Photo by Brabantia – Designed for Living