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18 May 2016

EU Referendum - will somebody please treat us as adults?



It’s the most important electoral decision we will have to make in a generation, we are told. It will chart the course of the nation (and other nations) for years to come, they say. Unlike a general election, they tell us, we won’t be able to undo the result in five years time. So why is the standard of debate in the Euro-referendum campaign stuck at such a cringe-makingly pathetic level?

Normally on this site we avoid politics and concentrate on topics related more closely to metals, commodities generally and a bit of economics, but I thought perhaps in the circumstances the referendum warranted a look. The question it poses - should the UK remain a member of the European Union - is a pretty serious one, as the politicians all rush to tell us. However, I don’t think I’m unique in seeing their attempts to persuade us one way or the other as failing to match the gravity of the decision.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had the threat of World War Three thrown at us and we’ve had the EU compared to Adolf Hitler. Those are the headlines that the news media has relished broadcasting.  Now, in the first of these, David Cameron was making the valid point - perhaps not that well, but still - that the fragmentation of central Europe and the Balkans after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War One released nationalist tensions which were at least a contributing factor to World War Two. After 1945, the Soviet empire kept those tensions under wraps; it may not have been nice for the subject peoples, but troops and tanks were a deterrent to nationalist surges. Since the Soviets have in turn gone on their way, it is a fair point to make that bringing those disparate nation states and ethnic blocs (which are still not necessarily the same thing) together in the EU has probably helped understanding of the tensions. We saw in the former Yugoslavia what could happen (and, incidentally, in that particular case the EU’s hands are not spotless; but that’s for a different discussion). So that’s a fair point to make; but to extrapolate from that to suggest that the EU, not Nato, has been the arbiter of overall European security and that without those states having the guiding hand of the EU on their shoulders the continent would slip into open warfare is ridiculous hyperbole. Voters are not idiots who cannot understand a fair point without stupid exaggeration.

So, to Hitler; seems obligatory these days, since Ken Livingstone’s repellent excuse for the anti-semitism which permeates the hard left. (Incidentally, since seemingly it’s trendy to refer to Hitler, in the game of handshake degrees of separation, I can get to Hitler really quickly. When I was young, learning to ski in Austria, the father of the family  - friends of my parents - with whom I was staying was a schoolfriend of Walter Scheel, at that time President of the Bundesrepublik; he came to lunch one day, and meeting him, I shook his hand. He had worked with Adenauer in the fifties and sixties, and Adenauer, although probably not too enamoured of Hitler, had undoubtedly met him as Mayor of Cologne; so I reckon that’s three handshakes to a mass murderer…I just thought I’d mention it.)  Anyway, Boris Johnson was castigated for - apparently - comparing the EU to Hitler. Read what he said, though, and, just as there is reason at the bottom of Cameron’s WW3, so there is here. What Johnson was actually commenting on was that many people, in many different ways and for many different reasons, have tried to unify the continent of Europe; they didn’t succeed in the past, and Johnson’s contention - right or wrong - is that the EU hasn’t, either. In fact, Johnson was very close to paraphrasing arch Euro federalist Valery Giscard d’Estaing, in a 2003 speech - apparently, it was OK then. But in both cases, the opposing side of the campaign doesn’t choose the underlying message to discuss but concocts a ludicrous distortion around it, thus effectively killing intelligent discussion.

In fact, assertion rather than discussion seems to be the vogue. Look at the famous weekly £350m that goes to the EU from the UK taxpayer. Or does it? Certainly, the headline figure is about right, as a gross number. But then, a substantial amount comes back as EU funding to the UK. It comes back, though, with strings attached, in that some of it can only be spent in ways decided by the EU. So why, instead of the ‘out’ campaign screaming about the first point and the ‘in’ campaign yelling back about the second, can we not have a reasoned debate about whether or not what happens is beneficial as a whole, or whether it is indeed true that we would be better served by the UK government alone making the decision?  

Then there is the forecasting. Bear in mind that very few economic forecasts for more than a year ahead survive without substantial revision, and then contemplate the Treasury announcing that the cost per household of leaving the EU will be £4300, going forward to 2030. I’m sorry, but when I look at what the Treasury have said in recent years, I need more justification of that than just an assertion with their imprimatur on it. Or unemployment. I find it difficult to be convinced that “unemployment will be far worse” outside the EU when I look at rates across the Union, particularly the shocking levels of youth unemployment in a fair number of members. Bald assertion, by Nick Clegg - remember him? - I seem to recall, that three million jobs are dependent upon membership of the EU cuts no ice without some form of justification.

I could go on. According to leave, looking out of the window here at my few acres, I should expect to see migrant camps set up within months if we remain members.  Or there will be a plague of locusts. Or something. There are about five weeks left in this campaign. Is it really too much to ask those conducting it to abandon the shrill, shriek panic calls and start trying to make their respective positive cases? Project Fear just about swung the Scottish referendum, but then in comparison that was simple. Just a cool, calm look at the oil price and market was enough to send shudders down the spines of the intelligent undecided. This one is far more complex, and there are effectively three groups of voters out there. There are the diehard ‘in’ and diehard ‘out’, who have already long ago made up their minds, regardless of any debate. Then there are the undecided, perhaps those - like me - who see David Cameron’s 'renegotiation' as a wasted opportunity to address some of the genuine issues surrounding the EU, not just for the UK but for all members. They need to see how both sides can present a positive view of their own case, not just a negative one of the opposition’s. Without that, I fear the turnout will be low, with a lot of abstentions, and that will risk the result being perceived as highly suspect.

I know this is the point where I should relate all this back to metals, but I’m not going to do that today. There are some serious issues surrounding how an exit would affect markets, which need greater analysis, so we will be looking at that again here, and Metal Bulletin will be running a number of articles on the subject in the coming period.

Truly it’s the end of days. Since I wrote the bulk of this, we’re now told the latest apparently serious decider - ISIS would support Leave. Will nobody treat voters as adults? 

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