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Expert Comment: Where is Project Fact?

Euro square Tuesday 21 June 2016

Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics, reflects on the EU Leave and Remain campaigns and asks - have the British public been given the tools they need to differentiate between fact and fiction? 

As someone who has studied Ireland’s EU referendums in some detail, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting anything particularly enlightening in the British referendum debate.

But the past few weeks have been far worse than I expected. On one side, it has been Project Fear; on the other, Project Fantasy. And no sign of any Project Fact.

This is partly because of an innate problem with European referendums. The EU is a complex and multi-faceted organisation, one that cannot be easily reduced to the simplistic ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ of a referendum. Inevitably, this means that campaigns become less about balanced interpretation of facts and more about trying to capture a mood or set a tone.

And a key aspect of that is trying to influence people’s perceptions of the pros and cons. Here, one of the big factors is immediacy: voters seem to regard potential short-term effects as more tangible and real than longer-term ones.

In Ireland, it has usually been the case that the pro-EU side has been able to offer the short-term goodies while the anti-EU side’s arguments have focused on perceived long-term threats. However, in the British referendum, it seems to be the other way around. It is the Leave side which dangles short-term benefits, whereas the negative effects of being outside the Union would not be instantaneous – they would take quite some time to sink in.

Probably the most disappointing thing about the debate has been the lack of awareness about the EU. Yes, there are plenty of flaws with the EU, but I don’t know of any politicians, advisers, policy-makers or analysts in Europe who don’t think so. Instead, there is an important and serious debate developing throughout Europe about how to reform the policies and institutions.

Sadly, hardly any of that debate has been heard in the British case, drowned out by the idiotic and ill-informed comments from both camps. The ridiculous shouting match on the River Thames between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof was a perfect example of how low the campaign has stooped (and how I wish I could have used the word “sunk” there!)

There is an old adage that you get the politicians and the politics you deserve, but the British public deserved far, far better than the Punch and Judy show that has been served up to them over the past few weeks.

Dr Michael Holmes - full profile

Department of History and Politics  

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