Leaders: Beating the fear factor is key to EU referendum

Avoiding scaremongering is key to a successful EU campaign. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Avoiding scaremongering is key to a successful EU campaign. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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As opponents tap into base instincts, it becomes difficult to maintain necessary focus on the economic arguments that really matter

David Cameron has been accused of scare-mongering after warning that a Brexit could spark a stampede of immigrants crossing the Channel from France in an effort to set up home in the UK.

This should come as no surprise. The debate over whether to stay in Europe or leave was always going to reach this point, where political argument descends to a level designed to tap into base instincts – fear, by another name.

The question over Britain’s future as part of the union and the forthcoming referendum have not come about because of the current migrant crisis, which has brought tens of thousands of people to makeshift encampments at the French port of Calais. The issues just happen to have coincided – perhaps conveniently for some factions.

The UK has so far managed to keep a safe distance from the reality of the migrant situation because of a 2003 agreement that means the British border is effectively in France. Migrants are therefore stopped before they can cross the Channel, rather than having to be sent back once they have arrived in the country – the latter being a far more complicated method of control.

There is no question that agreement over regulating the movement of people should be a key part of any effective union of nations, so it is inevitable that the referendum will be influenced by the crisis. But should it be our primary concern?

Many people are already stirred up by the current state of play, so this latest portent of doom is an effective card for the Prime Minister to play. The threat of “the Jungle” moving from Calais to a site in England adds a whole new complexion to the debate.

Those who had until now remained unmoved by the Europe debate are suddenly sitting up and paying attention. Meanwhile, supporters of an exit may be reconsidering when invited to dwell on the prospect of thousands of migrants arriving in Kent.

Emotive appeals have been proved to work in the past. Stoking anger at Brussels over attempts to interfere in the British way of life is a tried and tested tactic.

And of course Cameron is speaking the truth when he says there are plenty of French politicians who would jump at the chance to scrap the current arrangement if the UK was to abandon the EU. Policing our border is a problem they could happily do without.

But the danger of focusing on this issue is that we could forget what the referendum is really all about, namely, the economic advantages and disadvanatges of being part of a European union. We cannot disregard the importance of imigration controls, but it would be a mistake to allow the outcome of the vote to be decided on this subject alone. It is much bigger than that.

However, if we learnt anything during the last general election – when the threat of Scottish over-influence at Westminster hit home south of the Border – it was that fear can be a vote winner. It may well be the deciding factor once again.

Few winners in a sorry saga

Alistair Carmichael says he is “disappointed” to have lost a bid to have his legal fees paid by constituents who made a failed challenge to his election as MP for Orkney and Shetland.

This is something of an understatement, because the Liberal Democrat’s costs have been estimated at £150,000. Whatever we think about elected members being in privileged positions, few become wealthy by entering politics, and the legal fees Carmichael faces represent more than double his annual salary at Westminster.

Petitioners had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the MP had committed an “illegal practice” before last year’s general election by deliberately lying in a television interview over his role in the leaking of a memo which claimed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would secretly prefer Tory leader David Cameron as Prime Minister rather than his Labour opponent Ed Miliband.

At the Court of Session yesterday, Roddy Dunlop QC, representing Carmichael, argued that it is unfair his client is being penalised financially after he had successfully defended himself. It’s a reasonable point and would normally be a compelling argument.

However, Carmichael must have feared it would come to this. Although the case against him under the Representation of the People Act failed, it was by no means a clear cut decision, and he emerged with little credit.

Last night, one of the petitioners – who used crowdfunding to cover their own legal fees – said there had been no winners in the end. Not yet, anyway. The eventual winners will be the public representatives who realise that telling a bare-faced lie in the name of politics could end up costing them a fortune.