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Messages to avoid
02 Aug, 2019

Anything that is not the positive hopeful case for the EU

London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes that we need at any one time to present a small number of key messages for the Remain campaign. They should last for a couple of months. We should focus on sovereignty, democracy, community, identity.  That is, we should make our arguments on what Leavers think is their ground; but actually it’s ours. Earlier blogs sets out the issues and suggested key messages to use. This one thinks about messages to avoid. 


We should avoid:


Anything that disses 2016

Advisory. Scotland voted Remain. Only 35% of the population voted Leave. 16/17 year olds had no vote. Leave lied. Whatever. Anything that casts doubt on the validity of 2016 just ensures that we are not going to be listened to. There is no way of criticising the referendum without criticising Leave voters. So, stick to the neutral incontrovertible fact: in 2016, Leave had no plan. Now there is a plan for Brexit. So let’s review the plan together.


Too much about the economy

For most Leavers Brexit is not about the economy, but about sovereignty and immigration. Many would be willing to pay a price to obtain it. They despise our focus on the economy, our concern for our wallets. Moreover, if we end up with people wishing to have Brexit but voting Remain because they cannot afford it then we will have lost the aftermath. So we have to counter their message of national pride with our hopeful message of internationalism and personal freedom.


Citing EU laws we like

People can point to laws they dislike. Not everyone likes all laws: you think of it as an employment right; to someone else it’s a burden on business. But fundamentally we cannot know the counter-factual: what law would the UK have passed if not in the EU? So we need to focus on the structural argument: the benefits from pooling sovereignty in areas where a common approach works best – irrespective of whether we like the individual laws that follow.



Fear and risk are hard to handle in a vote. The Leave campaign was successful at turning Remain into the high risk option: a European army, Turkey joining the EU. Those worked for them because they played into their overall message Take Back Control. Most of our risk issues are economic and play into a low-benefit story about protecting wallets. Only security risks really play into a positive narrative – but are unlikely to land as Leavers see the EU as a source of harms, not of preventative measures.


The harms of Brexit

A re-run of Project Fear – how well did that go? Nothing will land. Leavers will think either it is exaggerated or it shows lack of moral fibre/ willingness to endure temporary hardship. Month 1 chaos after No-Deal is certainly possible, but is not the real problem. A focus on Brexit harms also shows we do not have a positive case for being in the EU, just that it is better than the alternative.


EU is a necessary evil/ a price worth paying

If we accept some Leavers’ formulation that there is a trade-off between single market membership (good) and freedom of movement (bad) then we have lost. Similarly if we praise trade and are silent about freedom of movement. Or if we go on about the restrictions the Government could impose on freedom of movement or about setting up a Migration Impact Fund – because that too accepts Leavers’ premise that freedom of movement is a bad thing.

We have to argue – and believe, we must be sincere - that every core element of the EU is good. So: freedom of movement is desirable in its own right. Trade is desirable in its own right. Together they are a great package.


Any bad argument just because it makes a good slogan

In the EU, salads are routinely chlorinated. So what is the problem with chlorinated chicken? It is a rather technical argument about whether it is better to address health and welfare issues at every stage in a production process or at the end. Few of us are able to form an informed view. Similarly it is inconceivable that a trade deal could oblige privatisation of the NHS – that is not within the scope of a trade agreement. It might affect the prices paid for drugs which are depressed because the NHS is a monopsonist – so they are below open market prices; is that fair? We lower our ethics if we use bad arguments.


Remain and Reform

We should not promise what we cannot deliver. To the argument that the EU has problems we should respond: sure, but what organisation is perfect? We should not promise a reform, though we can point to the UK Government’s ability to influence EU decision-making.


We should be leading the EU (not leaving)

If we Remain it will take a while before the EU countries take us seriously again. The record of several years of dysfunctional and offensive government (and Opposition) will take time to overcome. We will also have to rebuild capacity at home, the civil servants who have been taken off useful work to prepare for No-Deal &c. Finally, we will still be a bitterly divided country, not knowing what we want. At best we should hope to be a well-behaved or at least not destructive partner. We should not pretend that if we stay we are going to mould the EU to our wishes.


Domestic policies: austerity/ left-behind

A large part of the Remain movement has decided that austerity in left-behind communities is the real cause of the Leave vote. But that is not true: millions of well-off people, of Conservatives, of people in affluent parts of the country voted Leave. If we make the Remain movement a Labour front we put off Conservative Remainers. We insult Leave voters by saying they did not read the question on the ballot paper. And we make promises that we cannot deliver: only the political parties have the authority to effect change. What we can say is that if we stay in the EU then domestic reform will be easier (more time, more money, ideas from Europe, scope for pan-EU action); and that all parties have thought about how to do it.



We need a small number of messages that will last for months. This series of papers suggests the areas we need to address, the messages we could draw on, and the messages to avoid.

At its heart, the Leave campaign was about sovereignty, community and freedom. That’s great – because those are our best reasons for being in the EU, Europe’s great project for peace, democracy and individual freedom.





The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.