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Sleepwalking towards Brexit?

Threatening to leave a club is often a balancing act. Push the other members too hard and you may face a brick wall; push too little and the exercise becomes useless. What’s more, to have any degree of success you need ambitious goals and a realistic strategy to achieve them. This is more or less the situation David Cameron is in, as he wields his threat of pulling Britain out of the European Union. Alas, his goals are weak and his strategy is creaking.

The British Prime Minister outlined his conditions for staying in the EU in November 2015. Eagerly awaited both in and outside Britain, the shopping list proved disappointing when unveiled.

Michael D Beckwith / Flickr Creative Commons

Michael D Beckwith / Flickr Creative Commons

Cutting benefits for EU migrants coming to Britain and a symbolic request for exemption from the idea of ‘ever closer union’ were among the conditions laid down. But they are hardly the big issues that affect people’s daily lives. Threatening to pull the country out of a union which underpins the world’s largest economic market, unless these sorts of conditions are met, betrays some worrying thinking.

Of course, Mr Cameron doesn’t intend to exit the EU. The chances are he cares little about any damage to his reputation among other EU leaders. His real priority is stopping the haemorrhage of Tory Party members to the United Kingdom Independence Party, a right-wing party whose raison d’être is to get Britain to quit the EU.

What better way to outflank UKIP than to defeat it in a popular vote on its favourite territory: Europe.

But here too David Cameron is revealing some disturbingly poor strategy. He, like many in his party, is averse to the institutions in Brussels . He has spent his political career criticising the EU. When he eventually does start campaigning, voters will find it hard to believe him when he says Britain should stay in the EU. His messaging will certainly have a whiff of Jekyll and Hyde about it.

The situation on the ground is worrying, though not yet desperate. Polls today show a victory for those who want to leave the European Union. Much of the mainstream media supports a British withdrawal. Hysterical, partisan headlines like ‘Millions of jobless Bosnians could be headed for Britain as country applies to join EU’ are all too common [1]. The main political parties are still too divided. Labour and the Conservatives will not be backing one side or the other, instead allowing every Member of Parliament to campaign how he wishes.

Weakness plagues the other side too of course. Those campaigning for a ‘Brexit’, or British exit of the EU, are currently divided into two bickering groups (Vote Leave and Leave EU). But they are likely to merge sooner or later in outrage at Mr Cameron’s weak demands in his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership. The Brexit campaign has so far been far more effective at rousing its supporters with emotional arguments.

The one sector that has been vocal is big business. They have most to lose from quitting the EU as their cheerleader, the UK government, would no longer be able to frustrate rules governing the single market. But messaging about falling turnovers and weaker job creation is hardly the stuff of campaign victories. We need stories about people.

This means Mr Cameron has to change course quickly if he wants to avoid hitting the iceberg.

He has little time in which to do this. This means he of all people needs to start campaigning passionately about the benefits of Britain in the EU. That also means getting those in his party to start being vocal. It means
ministers should be travelling up and down the country to spread a positive message.

It’s time to start using the things that Europe has given us, like the ERASMUS programme, cross-border travel or strong consumer rights. And to start using the things it can do for us, like more cooperation on research, migration or foreign policy. Where are the celebrities campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU? Another good starting point would be to inject some life into the online platform for the Stay In campaign.

The referendum is likely to take place in mid-2016. The British people deserve a real debate on what being part of the EU is about, not hear the usual stories about bureaucrats and bendy bananas. The EU isn’t perfect, but then nor is Westminster. Both Britain and the EU have too much to lose if they divorce. If Mr Cameron doesn’t start moving soon, the UK is at risk of sleepwalking towards Brexit.

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