Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #2: victory over nonsense

Britain's 'Super Thursday' of elections behind us, it's now time to turn to the main course: the UK's momentous decision on whether to stay in the European Union. We'll now dedicate the next five weeks to detailing why we should decide to remain in the EU, sifting out the statistical wheat from the data chaff, and attempting - however imperfectly - to take you through the reasons why we believe that a remain vote is the safest, most rational, least risky, most sensible option.

This week: defeating the Brexiteers will be a victory for good governance and perhaps, just distantly, for reason itself. Why? Because some of them - not all of them - have pushed the boundaries of public debate and argument way beyond acceptable spin and nuance, and just started making stuff up. They know it. You know it. And it's got to stop. It reminds us most forcefully of all those US Republicans who all said that they just knew Mitt Romney was going to be elected President in 2012 because of all those skewed polls and differential turnout on the day (he wasn't); or Labour members who insist on saying that they'll win the 2020 election under Jeremy Corbyn (this is extremely unlikely). Brexiteers now resemble nothing more than a cult or faith, determined to create their own reality bubble - inside which they will then live, win or lose, for the rest of political time. Or until the next referendum. Whichever comes soonest, perhaps.

Now, everyone argues. All campaigns fit reality to their needs and demands. There's nothing particularly wrong with that. The In campaign, for instance, probably exaggerates the economic damage that a Brexit would do to the UK in the long term. There would undoubtedly be three, four, five or more years of acute pain if we leave, and probably a recession, albeit one of shallow depth and uncertain duration. But, in the end, most economic models assert that a sustained growth path would be re-asserted at some point in the 2020s - if only because the trend rate of growth can't be suppressed for all that long. Britain's a huge, dynamic, well-equipped, attractive and growing economy. In the end, that won't change, and Britain in Europe's attempts to add up all the GDP hit we'd take in the next few years and then divide that number by the number of families in the UK is an understandable but misleading piece of propaganda.

The problem with the Leavers is that they've pushed things much, much further than this. They're trying to bend and reshape public discourse over numbers so much that they're making the data snap under the weight of their untruths and misrepresentations. Let's take a look at just five claims that the Out camp make, and show you something of what we mean.

Britain sends £350m a week to the EU. No. No it does not. It does not. This is a deliberate, total, ridiculous, pernicious little untruth, a fact which people like Boris Johnson (currently bundling around Britain bellowing about Hitler and the Loch Ness Monster) must know, but cover up in the service of what they tell themselves is the greater good. Actually, less than half of this amount of cash ever leaves the country from the Government and goes to the EU - a fact which the Statistics Authority has warned the Brexit camp about in an admonition they seem to have totally ignored. The figure's a bit higher if we factor in all private and public sector contributions to the EU, it's true, but it's nowhere near £350m. The country's head of stats tells you that something is untrue. You put it up in massive letters on the side of your battlebus. You brazen things out. This means that (a) you are a fantasist and narcissist; and/ or (b) you are a deeply cynical and nasty piece of work. This is but the latest evidence that Mr Johnson is utterly unsuited to any post, anywhere in Whitehall and Westminster, let alone the premiership which he so patently and ludicrously aspires to. Making these sorts of claims wouldn't allow you to graduate from a university with any sort of degree, any time, anywhere - except perhaps in Mr Johnson's bullying, over-heated and increasingly fevered imagination.

75 per cent of our laws are made in Brussels. Rubbish. The United Kingdom Independence Party say this over and over again, until (well) they're purple in the face in fact, but it's another whopper. The Commissioner on whose words they rely in support of this claim was talking about the proportion of European laws made in concert between the European Council and Parliament, not the amount of actual law in each member state that comes from the EU level. Now you do have to be careful here, as the actual level of lawmaking that emanates from Europe is a bit slippery. It all depends on what you mean by 'laws' - and we're not trying to be evasive here, so bear with this one. Probably between 10 per cent and 14 per cent of British Acts of Parliament contain some element of EU law or rules, a figure that therefore probably exaggerates their influence as a small part of some legislation. A similar level of British regulations or Statutory Instruments, which Ministers use to bring bureaucratic rules into effect, contain some element of European influence (opens as PDF). On the other hand, maybe about half of the more detailed regulations contained and brought into effect via Statutory Instruments emanate first from the EU. Most of these relate to the Single Market, and therefore pertain to trade, production, standards and the like - but that's a large slice of government giving voice to a number of supra-national votes and compromises. You might not like that. It's to taste, really. It's a kind of a 'how long is a piece of string?' question. But Outers would do well to focus their attention on this reality, rather than some bloated claims about the vast reach of some 'Brussels bureaucracy' that is hardly as monstrous as the 75% figure makes it sound.

The European Union wants to ban bendy bananas and coffee machines. This is a load of old tosh as well. The British tabloids have always been full of this sort of story. You know the sort of thing. No more green mushy peas. Subsidised bullfighting. Pigs given toys (not that that sounds like such a bad idea). Most of it is utter nonsense. An end to bendy bananas? That's because the industry and member states wanted to make sure green bananas for crating could be counted on to contain similar amounts in each box. An end to green mushy peas? Some types of regulated colourings got bumped off the list: three perfectly adequate types of green remain, if you like your peas mushy (we do). And there's been a lot of fuss about kettles and toasters recently. You know what? No decisions have been taken, no action is likely for a while, it rests in the hands of member governments and elected Members of the European Parliament, and for a couple of years now the Commission has been operating a 'no action while there are alternatives rule' on such evidence-based questions. No doubt most Britons want to make sure that carbon emissions fall, so that their coasts don't get washed away. They probably think we should act together with our partners to ensure that happens, all the while guaranteeing that our own manufacturers don't have their high standards undercut. This is how you do that. Sorry, but them's the breaks.

European Union accounts haven't been signed off for twenty years. Sorry, but they have. You hear this one all the time - it's entered that mythic sphere of discourse where the Express and the Daily Mail want it to reside, a kind of fictive-factual earworm that you can't quite shake off even when you know it's just a load of nonsense. In fact, the European Court of Auditors has given the Commission's accounts a clean bill of health for every year since 2007, and - although some of the accounts have been criticised - this is just one of those little bits of popular 'knowledge' that is totally fake. It's true that the auditors are critical of the 'error rate' in the accounts, which can vary between about two per and seven per cent, but most of these originate at member state level, and have certainly fallen since new systems were put in place in the mid-2000s. So there's a good argument to be had here. Is there too much government at European level, which the Commission and Parliament then find it hard to monitor? Quite likely. So you can say that. What you can't say is that the accounts haven't been 'signed off'. Because they have.

We don't control our borders. Another big, big misrepresentation, this one - and one repeated so endlessly, so constantly that it's become another drumbeat of the Brexiteers. One of the reasons they might win is that they repeat and repeat untruths like this so long, so loudly and so confidently that they think that we can't see the holes in their arguments. We can. It's important again to be clear here. Citizens from other European countries have the right to work and live in the UK - so long as they obey all the laws, that is. But that does not mean, and it has never meant, that Britain is not in control of its borders. Britain is not part, and is never likely to be part, of the Schengen free movement area. Nor can it be forced to be so. So there are border checks everywhere - massively understaffed and invasive, if the queues at Heathrow are anything to go by - and to say that there are 'no border controls' is just pish. The Home Secretary can exclude you on any number of public policy or safety grounds (opens as PDF). You don't have the right to come and stay whatever you do or whoever you are. Why, otherwise, do you think that refugees are stuck at Calais on the Channel Coast? Yes, that's right - because of all those borders that we supposedly don't have. Nor are high immigration numbers 'proof' of open borders. Most immigrants into the UK are not and never have been EU citizens, and the Government could squeeze the numbers of immigrants way down tomorrow if it wanted to, while remaining in the EU. The reason it doesn't? Because Britain's job market both needs, and depends on, large numbers of immigrants. Ministers know that, which is why they will never (and will never truly try to) meet their immigration targets. They won't tell you that, outright, for fear of enraging Conservative Party activists. But it's true. And don't get us started, by the way, on all that rubbish about the gap between National Insurance claims and the numbers of 'recorded' passenger survey entrants that have been so whipped up by the tabloid press. That's (for the most part) another load of old codswallop.

Five claims. Five outrageous and egregious misrepresentations. Five cries which are the opposite of the truth. Let this little whisper follow you to the ballot box on 23 June: if you go along with these people, they will be running your country by the autumn, and you will have given them a license to say just about anything they want, about anything they want. Mr Johnson will be Prime Minister, Michael Gove will be Chancellor, and Priti Patel will be Work and Pensions Secretary. The Brexiteers will be in charge. They'll be laughing at you. Don't let them.