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Analysis
Emotion versus economics

Emotion versus economics

Danish experience and an anti-EU vote

by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore

Tue 31 May 2016

As a dedicated European, I fear the Leave campaign will prevail on 23 June. This prognosis of the British referendum outcome is based on experience of four Danish votes on European issues – in June 1992, May 1993, September 2000 and December 2015 – two of which took place when I was state secretary in the Danish foreign ministry.

We can’t rely too much on opinion polls. According to an old saying, politicians shouldn’t call referendums unless, from the beginning, they can be sure of the outcome. Yet three of the Danish referendums led to a No vote, despite a big Yes majority when they were announced.

There is no compelling economic case for 'Brexit'. Economic facts point unequivocally to Britain losing from leaving. The size of the loss is open for dispute; the direction is not. By contrast, the economic arguments for departure are vague and half-formed. Some Brexiteers say the UK would be less constrained by red tape. Yet Britain already is one of the least regulated economies. There is not the slightest evidence why a departing UK would have more or better opportunities for non-European Union trade.

Yet – precisely because so much of the argument turns on economic questions – I conclude that the answer might be No to the EU. Many voters agree neither that the referendum should be fought on economic issues, nor with Prime Minister David Cameron’s dire analysis of the consequences of EU rejection.

Forecasts from the UK Treasury are played down as high-level conjecture, hotly contested by other experts. Danish referendum experience tells us, alas, that anti-establishment dissenters refuting official theses command great media attention, leaving the electorate baffled and reaping great gains for the anti-government cause.

In a media maelstrom people fall back on whom they trust. Voters all over the world are losing confidence in mainstream politicians, giving their support to so-called plain speakers who (however improbably) appear to care for ordinary citizens, like the UK’s Boris Johnson and America’s Donald Trump.

Such no-longer-fringe politicians address issues such as migration. They ply the electorate with talk of the ‘good old days’– in Britain’s case, the empire and the special relationship with the US. In fact, almost all Commonwealth countries, along with President Barack Obama, have made clear they would prefer Britain to stay in. But that cuts no ice with the voters.

The populists’ trade is in lines such as, ‘There will be mistakes made in the future, but let them be our own mistakes.' That counts for much more than statistics about growth and costs of living.

It hardly helps the Remain camp that, in the past, Cameron has been less than clear about his commitment to Europe. Not so long ago he was seen as a eurosceptic.

When the prime minister tabled his list of proposed reforms, this implicitly did not exclude recommending departure if the result was unsatisfactory. Cameron has frequently stated that Britain could survive outside the EU without dire hardship. All this resonates badly with his present tone sketching cataclysm outside the EU. Short though the electorate’s memory may be, voters remember enough of what Cameron said before to hold him to at least some of the findings.

The 23 June vote is politically and psychologically complex. It is not a general election where party loyalty plays a role and simple questions decide the outcome. A cocktail of sympathies, emotions and sentiments are at work, reflecting attitudes towards politicians, neighbouring countries and the world.

Reflecting this broad interplay of forces, pro-EU campaigners are deluded if they think they can win the referendum solely on economic arguments. They will have to engage on the emotional questions too. Otherwise, on 24 June, Britain may find itself out in the cold.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry. This is No.75 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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