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Politics & Law Series: Expert CommentMagazineEU Referendum

The European Referendum: What's behind the campaign?

Following the turbulent campaigns for both leave and remain in the run up to the European Union referendum, City News asks the experts what impact this has on the voters.

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

After the Second World War, European integration was seen as an antidote to the extreme nationalism which had devastated the continent. In 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community (EEC) and established a customs union. In 1973, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath led the UK to join (alongside Denmark and Ireland) despite the opposition of the Labour Party. The key Commons vote was won comfortably, by 356 to 244. 69 Labour rebels voted for entry and only 39 Tory rebels voted to stay out. Within two years, 67 per cent of the British people endorsed the UK’s membership in a referendum.

40 years later, the EEC is now the European Union, comprising 28 member states and the UK is facing another referendum on its membership. This time around, the political playing field is very different. The referendum has been called by a Tory party seemingly deeply divided in its opinion and a Labour party largely wanting to stay in, despite historical disagreements.

On Thursday 23rd June, the British populace will return to the polls, with the Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron, leading the campaign to stay and former Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, one of the biggest advocates to leave. Due to the deep embedding of European systems in everyday British lives, it has been close to impossible to obtain verified facts on how things will be post-referendum, either in or out. The campaign so far has been acrimonious, with mudslinging common in media outlets on both sides.

With few actual facts on what a post-referendum UK will look like, how will the British people know which way to cast their votes? How have the campaigns been managed and how do the British people really feel?

Do people really care?

Dr Dan Mercea, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology

So far, we’ve not seen any specific protests for or against a European exit. Which, when you compare with earlier referenda in Ireland, France and more recently Greece and the Netherlands, is a fairly rare occurrence.
In the run up to the vote in Greece last year, there were mass protests on a daily basis with feelings running high among the Greek populace. It is difficult to draw comparisons with the UK beyond the general observation that the governing parties in both countries used the referendum as an instrument to score political points in negotiations with the EU.
Situations that reveal the relative deprivation of a group or section of the population (‘we are the 99 per cent’), tend to cause moral outrage and a deep sense of injustice. For example, things like the Iraq war and Junior Doctors contracts seem to galvanise protests. The referendum has not yet produced either of these effects but if the vote is for exit, both could materialise with protests by EU citizens or British EU expats living in the UK and Remain groups. Social media may well become a key arena where protest is fomented.

How important is the language being used?

Professor Philip Corr, Professor of Psychology

The Brexit debate is one of the most important in living memory and the ramifications of the vote will reverberate throughout British society for decades to come. The facts of the debate are crucial, but it is more than likely that the final vote will be as much, perhaps more, influenced by the language of the debate than by Treasury econometric forecasts or factual rebuttals. One powerful emotion is likely to sway the debate: loss aversion.
Loss aversion reflects the fact that we value things we own – or think we own – higher than things we do not. Coupled with the fact that we place more weight on negative information than on positive – even when the objective values of losses and gains are held constant – this means that the Leave or Remain camp that best exploits these powerful psychological forces will get the upper hand.
The Remain camp benefits by convincing voters that they will lose by leaving the EU. To be most successful, they need to make salient that it is ‘our’ EU and the potential loss is ‘yours’. If this can be personalised, all the better (e.g., reduced economic prosperity, more expensive holidays, increased mortgage rates due to economic shock and so on). When such indecision over the factual merits of the case exists, we must assume that there will be a strong pressure to avoid potential loss and vote to Remain.
The Leave camp will benefit if they can convince the voter that to remain in the EU would lead to further losses: erosion of national sovereignty, less control of borders, more immigration and the general loss of the ‘British way of life’.
On balance, the Remain camp has a rather easier psychological job to convince voters: just stress how much they might lose from leaving the EU, which, in any case, is an unknown quantity and say ‘why risk it?’
But the challenge for the democratic process is not to let the medium of the debate dominate the factual message. The language of Brexit may be just as important as the substance – indeed, it may be decisive.

What are the papers saying?

Jonathan Hewett, Director of Interactive and Newspaper Journalism

Journalists love change and debate – or reporting it, at least; such factors often underlie what they consider to be news. So the EU Referendum provides them with plenty of raw material. But the forward-looking nature of the debate poses a challenge, particularly for reporting that goes beyond the relaying of claim and counter-claim.
Key discussion points, such as whether we would we be better or worse off if we leave the EU, are at best speculative, in a contested debate with high stakes. Effective verification and analysis may require underlying assumptions and other complexities to be checked, needing resources that hard-pressed editors sometimes find hard to justify allocating.
Many people claim they want to improve their patchy knowledge of the EU, according to Electoral Commission research. For most media organisations – commercial businesses that prioritise attracting and engaging users – coverage of ‘how much we pay the EU’ or immigration projections have to be weighed up carefully.
Often more appealing in the eyes of editors are the ‘big name’ stories in the EU debate, from the Queen (allegedly) to Barack Obama. Opinion pieces by politicians and star columnists have their places, too. But beyond the headlines, specialist correspondents analyse the complexities and implications which form part of the BBC’s public-service remit.
Verifying facts remains a core journalistic function, vital in the flurry of claims about the EU, but they have been joined in recent years by new fact-checking organisations around the world. Full Fact, founded in 2010 with a mission to improve the quality of public debate in the UK, is fact-checking the claims of politicians and others in the EU Referendum debate, funded by a crowdsourcing initiative.

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