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Not all caution is fearmongering in the EU debate

Jonathan Lindsell, 17 February 2016

David Cameron’s idea that the Calais asylum seeker camps could move to Kent after Brexit is the latest example of argument over Britain’s future in which the Remain case is labelled ‘scaremongering’. Last week the Leave side had a similar experience with the Daily Mail running the headline ‘Quit the EU to save our NHS: Top doctor says migrants are bleeding it dry’, which was heavily criticised as alarmist.

Calais’ mayor and Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, did imply that the Calais arrangement would be re-evaluated after Brexit, so the risk was not meaningless or vapid, however unlikely readers may find it. Here, Eurosceptics like Daniel Hannan have moved beyond calling the claim preposterous and engaged to show why they think a Kent camp is unlikely. However, the campaigns are far too quick to accuse each other of scaremongering or advancing a project of fear. One Leave campaign, though, dismissed the Calais question as ‘doom-mongering’.

This is disingenuous in that it implies the EU’s supporters do not believe their arguments: it is one step away from condemning them for receiving Commission funds or being CIA stooges. This is especially true when addressing the comments of foreign leaders: we cannot know if they are lying, which is what the accusation amounts to.

Political logic in other countries demonstrably pushes leaders in directions that seem odd to British eyes. In Open Europe’s Brexit wargame in January, former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton made a passionate case on the difficulties Brexit could cause for Ireland, its economy and its social harmony. Writing off his anxieties about the detail of Brexit plans would feel like ducking an important conversation.

The line between scaremongering and raising real concerns is subjective. Of course a committed Leave campaigner will not be too worried about the same issues as a committed Remain supporter. Both sides are guilty – for example, the EU’s supporters often disregard sceptic fears about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as baseless. The benefit of the doubt should be given and debaters on both sides should engage with the questions and arguments of their opponents.

Examples of scaremongering allegations are easy to come by. Their weakness was exposed last week when a key Vote Leave donor, Peter Cruddas, signed a research document from his company which noted Brexit carries significant economic risks. It’s hard to criticise other companies that make the same point, if they do so in a balanced, evidence-based manner. My 2014 work Softening the Blow was based on talking to different interest groups about their Brexit fears, and indicates that there are paths Leave could take to avoid them. Doing this convincingly required acknowledgement that the fears are real.

Throwing about accusations of scaremongering is unedifying. If you think your opponents are being hyperbolic in their predictions, it is surely better to show why yours are more likely and more moderate, rather than falling on this rhetorical short cut. Ordinary members of the public must feel able to voice valid concerns.

The campaigns must accept that voters are worried about what would happen after a Leave vote. It looks paranoid, even slightly tin-hatted, to charge anyone raising concerns of scaremongering. It would be better for those confident of their case, to set out their position in a measured way. Otherwise the campaigns risk repeating the Scottish cybernats’ tactic of calling most opposition points ‘Project Fear’. This was effective up to a point, but also comes across as divisive, and ultimately, losing.

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