Continuing our series on the upcoming EU referendum, Articles Managing Editor Nathan Gore explores the reaction to the Government’s recent leaflet, in which they set out why they believe the UK should vote ‘remain’ on June 23rd.
The How, What and Why
Last week, the Government distributed a leaflet to every household in England, setting out their case as to why the UK should remain in the European Union. This leaflet will also be distributed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in May, following their own respective devolved elections. According to the Government, ‘internal polls’ have revealed that around 85% of the population wished to gain more information from the Government on the issues and implications of the vote in June.
‘Brexit’ campaigners, perhaps understandably, have reacted with ‘outrage’ to the leaflet campaign, with the Get Britain Out group launching an online e-Petition entitled “Stop Cameron spending British taxpayers’ money on pro-EU referendum leaflets”. It quickly gathered more than 200,000 signatures, and as a result, the continuation of the leaflets will be debated by MPs on 9 May.
Why are people angry?
The anger of the people can basically be summarised into three reasons:
1) The large cost of this leaflet, coming out of the taxpayer-funded public purse.
2) The fact that the Government is overtly taking sides, many feel they should have been more neutral.
3) Many people, especially online, have raised some questions over the factual correctness of the leaflet.
First foremost, people are up in arms about this leaflet due to the sheer cost of it: £9.3 million. Breaking down that figure, we see that it cost £458,500 to produce, and £5.94m to print and deliver across the UK. An additional £2.89m had been spent on the accompanying website and “digital promotion”, bringing us to the total end figure. When the end result of all this money is a leaflet that has just as many pictures as pages of text, you can begin to understand why it has raised more than a few eyebrows.
There has also been widespread controversy over the fact that many see this as ‘unfair’, given that the official ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ groups have their campaign spending limited to £7m in the amounts that they are permitted to spend once the ‘official’ campaign gets underway. This figure also includes a free mailshot, TV broadcasts and £600,000 in public funds. These limits will kick in during what is known as the ‘purdah’ period, which will begin 28 days before the June 23rd referendum date. However, because the Government and each individual political party is able to spend money on the campaign, it means that the total Remain spend will be £26.6million – compared to just £11.7million for the Leave campaign.
Katie Ghose, of the Electoral Reform Society, said “rushing” to spend £9.3m on the mail drop before stricter rules kicked in could make people feel the government was “playing fast and loose with the situation”. In times of austerity, this appears to be a particularly misguided manoeuvre on the behalf of the government, at least in simple PR terms.
There is also the question of neutrality and inherent fairness, with the Government using its financial and political clout to make sure that its interests are the ones which prevail.
The questions surrounding the equality of spending in this referendum campaign leads a lot of people on to the issue of neutrality, namely that they do not feel that the Government should explicitly taking sides in the debate. Indeed, the position of the Conservatives (i.e. the Ruling party) is officially ‘neutral’. This is an altogether more tricky issue, however, considering that Prime Minister David Cameron has come out strongly in favour of staying in the EU.
Despite this, there is strong public feeling that the Government should allow the two official campaigns to be the ones who lead the debate and arguments on either side. The two designated campaigns have recently just been named by the Electoral Commission as ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, with other smaller groups (mainly on the ‘Brexit’ side of the argument) also existing, but having further limits on spending (around £700,000).
UKIP Leader Nigel Farage, responding to the new pro-EU campaign leaflet, said: “Why is the government spending £10 million of our money telling us what we should think and what we should do?
“This is very much like what happened in 1975, legally it is questionable and morally it is wrong. It was wrong in 1975 and it is wrong now.” (referencing the 1975 referendum concerning remaining in the EEC).
What about the Facts?
Due to the uproar that this leaflet appears to have caused, much focus, understandably, has been on the actual content of the leaflet itself- does it stand up to any level of scrutiny? Surprisingly, the verdict from many independent websites and news outlets has been fairly positive. Whilst not necessarily endorsing the Government’s spin on such facts, the ones they use are on the whole true, and we will examine some here:
“The UK is not part of the EU’s border-free zone – we control our own borders which gives us the right to check everyone, including EU nationals, arriving from continental Europe”
This is very true, as the UK isn’t part of the EU’s border free zone—the Schengen area—and therefore it technically retains control over its borders. This means it can check passports at its borders and refuse entry to people without any valid identity documents, including EU nationals. There are, however, only a limited number of reasons (such as public security) under EU law that the UK can use to justify any refusal of entry.. Being part of the EU and signing up to the right to Freedom of Movement clearly has an impact on the levels of immigration also.
“The UK has secured a special status in a reformed EU. We will not join the Euro or be part of further European political integration.”
The term “special status” is not used anywhere in official EU documentation, but there is no doubt that the UK does have different terms to the rest of the EU nations. Francois Hollande, however, told journalists earlier this year that “there can be no special case”, although it remains to be seen what that actually means.
“The EU is by far the UK’s biggest trading partner. EU countries buy 44% of everything we sell abroad, from cars to insurance.”
This is correct, about 44% of UK exports in goods and services went to other EU countries in 2014. That compares to about 21% to the Americas, 19% to Asia, and 11% to non-EU European nations. That share, however, has been steadily declining in recent years, with exports to other countries continue to increase in both number and rate. For instance, in 2005 we were sending 52% of our goods across the channel but the most recent figures shows we are sending just 44%. Furthermore, no-one really seems to know what would happen to all of this trade if the UK were to vote to leave the EU. There are question marks over how long the deal would take to negotiate, how favorable terms we would get, and whether or not we would be treated like other non-EU countries.
“No other country has managed to secure significant access to the Single Market, without having to: follow EU rules over which they have no real say; pay into the EU; accept EU citizens living and working in their country.”
This is true, and is also the foundation of one of the Government’s strongest arguments regarding the EU, and one which the ‘Brexit’ side have struggled to successfully counter as of yet. Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein make up the countries that have full access to the single market and are not members of the EU. All of them pay into the EU, although less than the full members, and have to adopt all the laws of the EU (such as the right to Freedom of Movement), without having much of a say or any voting/veto power(s).
You can visit www.fullfact.org to check out comprehensive analysis of some of the claims that have been made, particularly in relation to the leaflet itself.
You can also join in with the debate here on The Student Lawyer forum and our previous Brexit articles are here! Remember, all views contained in this article are the writer’s own, and don’t represent any position held by The Student Lawyer or Grad Media Limited.