Brexit campaigns must get their facts straight

by Hugo Dixon | 15.02.2016


Britain’s renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union, which comes to a head at a summit on Thursday, will “run right to the wire”, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said on Sunday. But even as David Cameron battles with other leaders to nail down things such as the exact terms under which we will be able to deny “in-work benefits” to migrants, the prime minister is turning his attention to the strategic case for our membership of the club.

He made this clear in a speech in Hamburg on Friday, attended by Germany’s Angela Merkel. Cameron’s conclusion was that, in a world where Islamist extremism is a threat, Russia has invaded Ukraine and some countries say they can be economic successes while bypassing democracy, we must stand together with our European allies to promote our values, security and prosperity.

Our values, prosperity and security will, indeed, be three of big themes that will feature in the coming referendum. There will be a furious debate over whether staying in or leaving the EU best advances these.

The mission of InFacts.org, a journalistic enterprise I have just helped found, is to try to straighten out the facts. My colleagues include former editors of the Guardian, Le Monde, the Observer, Reuters and the Sun. We don’t, of course, think that everybody would have the same view about what was best for Britain if they agreed on the facts. But that would be a start.

InFacts doesn’t pretend to be neutral in this campaign. We are making the fact-based case to stay in. Our main tool is rebuttal. When we come across errors, we pop the perpetrators in our Sin Bin. Though we concentrate our fire on the Leave camp, we also criticise the Remain side when they stray.

In the few weeks since we soft-launched our website, there has been lots to get our teeth into. Migration has been the top story.

The New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne were a gift for eurosceptics. Nigel Farage, the UKIP boss, promptly declared that the attackers could get a German passport in three to four years and then come to Britain. We discovered that newly arrived asylum-seekers actually have to wait roughly a decade to get German passports. They also need clean criminal records.

Liam Fox, the Tory eurosceptic, went one step further suggesting that terrorist sleeper agents could get naturalised in continental Europe and then come to Britain to carry out an attack. Theoretically, yes. But would a jihadist really wait a decade to wreak havoc in the UK when he or she could do so immediately somewhere on the Continent? If Islamic State is so keen to hit Britain, surely the better option is to recruit home-grown terrorists?

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    On the other hand, Downing Street’s claim last week that quitting the EU could lead to the Jungle camp shifting from Calais to south-east England seemed exaggerated. Not only is it far from certain that the French would rip up the treaty that allows us to enforce British border controls in Calais; what is actually keeping the migrants out of the UK are the high fences and razor wire, to which we contributed £7 million last summer. Would Paris really tear all that down?

    The economy has also been a rich seam for InFacts. We took Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP, to task for saying that Britain sends £350 million a week to Brussels. The actual figure last year was £250 million.

    What’s more, our farmers, scientists, regional development projects and the like get millions back. When you net all that off — as well as our share of what Brussels spends on international aid and which we count towards our own target of helping poorer countries – the EU costs us £120 million a week. That’s under £2 per person.

    Incidentally, that is almost exactly what Norwegians pay for their access to the EU’s single market while not being a member of the bloc. The difference is that we get to vote on the club’s rules, while Norway doesn’t.

    Hannan went into our Sin Bin a second time for tweeting that the EU had cut free trade deals with just two Commonwealth countries. The MEP often waxes lyrical about how we should revive trading relationships with our former empire. The snag is he is not on top of his pet subject. The EU has made or is ratifying pacts with 32 Commonwealth countries.

    On the other hand, we had a debate with the Confederation of British Industry about its totemic figure that the average UK household is £3,000 better off each year from being in the EU. While we think that’s a reasonable ballpark, we were worried it was being used in a spuriously precise way.

    Some Remain campaigners were also suggesting that £3,000 would be the cost of quitting the club. In fact, the economic pain would depend on what sort of trade deal we cut with the EU post Brexit and how acrimonious the divorce was.

    The CBI was updating its research when we conveyed our concerns. We were happy to see that the business body made clear that the £3,000 estimate was just the mid-point of a wide range and not an estimate of the cost of Brexit.

    Claims about how Britain gets bossed around in the EU have also been grist to our mill. Michael Caine landed in the Sin Bin for saying that faceless bureaucrats make the EU’s rules. In fact, laws have to be approved by both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which is made up of ministers sent by national governments including Britain.

    VoteLeave, one of the main Leave groups, at least realises that we have votes at the Council of Ministers. But it says we can only rely on 8% of the total. That used to be so until 2014, but then our vote went up to 13%. Funny how the Leave camp didn’t trumpet this as an example of our increased influence.

    This article is being published simultaneously in The Evening Standard

    Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

    2 Responses to “Brexit campaigns must get their facts straight”

    • What a Croc of crappie!
      It is NOT Brussels or EU money that we get back it is OUR money.
      Angela Merkel, has already stated that she intends to fast track giving refugees EU status, because the other member states are not playing ball.
      The EU have already stated the exact terms of in work benefits and spent 2 days debating it in EU parliament and the majority of members states are against it.
      We are the 2nd biggest contributer to the EU and France and Germany get more Farming subsidiaries than we do, plus they and many of the others do not play by the same rules they impose on us.
      The EU open border policy has allowed free movement of home grown terrorist to travel freely to Syria for training and then back again, where they have travelled freely in the EU committed terrorist atrocities and then traveled free and unopposed through the EU back to their country of residence.
      13% is not enough we need 15% to be of any influence, funny how you haven’t mentioned how many times we have voted against and how many times we have been out voted? Let me help you there; 40 times we voted against and 40 times we were outvoted. Some influence!
      I have never been better off from being in the EU. In fact the introduction of tax on heating, clothing, children’s shoes essential toiletries, which the EU call luxury items, you know the ones, toilet rolls, soap, tampons, Airport, fossil fuels the list is endless, the imposed austerity (that Brits actually think is a Tory idea but when you look at EU directives you can see it is not).
      Big business and lobbyists make the laws and rules they pass them on to the commission who in turn pass them on to the council and the majority are rubber stamped with out even being debated.
      Yep you are correct, you really are for the in campaign.