British Proponents of EU Right to Appeal to Fear

Those who believe Britain would be better off staying the European Union are right to point to the risks.

The Union Jack flies in London, England, September 26, 2010
The Union Jack flies in London, England, September 26, 2010 (Adrián Navarro)

Proponents of a British exit from the European Union have taken to accusing their opposite numbers in the referendum campaign of appealing to fear for the consequences of leaving.

It’s not as though the out campaign is a ray of sunshine. It is after all predicated on the notion that belonging to the EU is unbearable. But let’s tackle this criticism of the “in” side, because their appealing to fear is actually perfectly justified.

There isn’t a joyful case to be made for membership, unless you’re an ardent federalist. For many Britons especially, the status quo isn’t terribly satisfying but it’s not unacceptable either. Being in the EU comes with obvious benefits, like ease of travel and doing business, and some disadvantages, like restrictive agriculture policies and fishing quotas.

On balance, it will probably seem a tolerable arrangement to most — especially when Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation did give the United Kingdom a few additional prerogatives.

The alternative, exit, is an unknown. There is no template for it. No other country has ever left the EU. Would Britain be able to negotiate a better deal outside? Or would it join the ranks of Norway and Switzerland, being forced to follow most EU regulations without the power to help write them in exchange for staying in the single market?


The reality is no one knows. The out campaign has no clear view of what comes the day after Britain leaves. Many of them seem to believe that the country is so valuable to Europe that the nations of the continent would fall over themselves to offer a better deal.

That rather seems to overestimate how the United Kingdom is perceived abroad.

It wouldn’t be in the rest of Europe’s interest to keep Britain out altogether, no, but nor would it be in the interest of continental governments to give Britain such a good deal that their own voters might be tempted to leave as well.

This is why the argument for staying in is negative. Britons, like most normal people, have no particular attachment to the European Union as it exists today, but they also recognize that the alternative could be worse.

There is nothing wrong about appealing to people’s worry that an exit from EU could leave them worse off. Especially when it probably would.

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