On June 23rd, the UK will decide whether to stay in the European Union. From a European perspective, what is frightening about this debate is not the xenophobic and often racist rhetoric used by parts of the anti-EU camp, but the nerveless arguments put forward by the EU-supporters.
There is a very simple and often entertaining way to get a glimpse of what many Brits have to deal with in the current Brexit debate. One merely has to go to a supermarket or local newspaper kiosk and read the headlines of The Daily Mail or the Sunday Express. With one hundred percent certainty (!) one will find the word “migrant” on the first page. Begging, stealing and raping their way through the island, Brits have to be careful because wherever they go, there will be a sneaky Syrian behind the next corner, ready to take their job and infect their children with what-have-you.
While this might seem quite irritating, strangely familiar to some extent and possibly ridiculous, what is actually scary from a European perspective is not the overt racism of the far-right but the ambitionless, unemotional conduct of the supporters of Britain in Europe.
The main part of the Brexit debate in the UK centres on the economic costs or benefits of staying in or leaving. While the Vote Leave campaign claims that the UK pays about £350 million to the EU each week – a number that ignores the vast economic benefits and subsidies the UK gets in return – the pro-EU camp spends a lot of effort refusing these claims and pointing to the economic benefits of staying. As a result, their arguments have pejoratively been labelled ‘Project Fear’. Boris Johnson and his fellows make repeated emotional appeals to British citizens that hardly contain any argumentative power. Comparing the European Union to Hitler was but the last expression of this trend.
Emotional arguments are often used in political debates and not necessarily condemnable. They can help creating a feeling of collectivity and shared interests as opposed to the political antagonist. As such they are essential for democratic discussion. It is therefore all the more frustrating to see the pro-EU side’s reluctance to appeal to emotions and ideals. The project of European integration is a great ideal and an emotional issue. Bringing 28 member states together in shared supranational institutions is a difficult task that cannot solely be dealt with in a technical manner. Mutual understanding of the historic importance of this unique enterprise is necessary as well as a shared vision for future development. The lack of emotional support that is currently spreading all over the Union and normally inherent to Euro-sceptics, seems to also have befallen the British Europhiles.
Tony Blair in March has criticised the EU supporters for not showing enough passion. He noticed a lack of enthusiasm among those campaigning to remain, and he is right. The Brexit debate is too self-centred on the advantages and disadvantages that the decision taken on June 23rd would have for the UK. When asked at a Brexit debate at the London School of Economics and Political Science why the pro-side so significantly lacked passion and an emotional appeal, the author and journalist Hugo Dixon said that Brits simply were “pragmatic” and that the debate should therefore focus on “practical things” rather than “ideals”.
Leaving the rhetoric power of emotional appeals entirely to the anti-EU side is a problematic and possibly dangerous endeavour. What is at stake is not just “a matter of economic realism”, to use Tony Blair’s words again, but also “a matter of political idealism”. The EU supporters should finally appeal to the great narrative of a united Europe that is crucial for maintaining peace and allowing its members a strong, united voice in the international sphere, rather than allow their opponents to nail them down on the economic, self-interested narrative.
Image by Gwydlon M. Williams.