The EU is Not A Household Expense—It’s A Trade Fair

The country-as-household metaphor is particularly difficult for Cameron and Osborne to argue against, because they have been deploying exactly the same argument in order to justify their austerity policies

London Book Fair

Ever since the EU Referendum campaign kicked off in earnest, everyone—Brexiters, Bremainers and Bragnostics—have been complaining that they can’t get the straight facts out of anyone. “If only we had the facts” they cry, “then we’d all be able to make a sober, rational choice about whether to vote in or out”.

That’s a noble idea but it’s also delusional. Most people aren’t going to do sums. They’re going to vote on gut instinct, emotions, and, if they are trying really hard to be civic minded, then they’ll vote on whose arguments seem most credible.

We don’t need more facts. The facts are out there for those who care to look and who have been educated in macroeconomics.

What we need are better metaphors.

I’ve been thinking about the Brexit arguments that I think are most persuasive to someone like me. Top of this list is the amount of money that we send to the EU every year… every day.

Here’s the Leave Campaign battle bus.

Leave Bus
The Vote Leave Battle Bus

This is a highly effective campaign message.  It invokes the wastefulness of the EU and celebrates the NHS.

Tangentially, its also a huge lie.

Now the mistake that those supporting Remain have made here is to quibble with the figure. “It’s not £350 million, its only £190 million! Gotcha, Boris.”

Only its not a gotcha at all, because in arguing over the facts about the precise figure, the Remain campaign implicitly concede the point that we pay a lot of money into the EU every year. And when we are dealing in emotions, gut feelings, and rules of thumbs, the fact that we are paying any money at all is what sticks. No-one is going to say “well since its only £190 million, that’s alright then”.  Instead, all the voters are simply thinking, “well let’s invest £190 million extra per day in the NHS then.”

So its not the figures, but the second part of the bus slogan that the Remain campaign should be tackling—the very idea that the money we pay to the EU would be available for other things.

To challenge that deceptive framing, we need a new metaphor.

“Let’s fund the NHS instead” implies that the UK’s finances are like a household budget: a finite amount of money comes in, and someone has to decide what essentials (and luxuries) to spend it on. This country-as-household metaphor is particularly difficult for David Cameron and George Osborne, the two most prominent Remain campaigners, to argue against, because they have been deploying exactly the same argument in order to justify their austerity policies.  David Cameron claimed that Britain had “maxed out its credit card” back in 2008, for example.

A better metaphor, immediately understandable and somewhat relatable, is that of the trade fair. Sure, there’s an entrance fee. But once you’re inside you do deals and make sales that you wouldn’t have made if you did not pay the entrance fee. If you make enough sales and deals, it doesn’t matter if the entrance fee is £190 or £350 or £190 million or £350 million.

The exact figure that we make back from the EU is probably not important, so long as its more than the initial investment. That figure is probably out there somewhere… but its telling it doesn’t roll off the tongue (or in this case, my typing fingertips) the way the £350 million figure does. That’s a big communications failure by the pro-EU side.

Thinking of the European Union in this way is of course not the whole story.  It doesn’t answer fears about immigration and sovereignty, the two other big talking points.   But framing the EU as a trade fair, and not as a household expenditure, certainly allays my worry about the amount of money we remit to the EU.  I think its the sort of simple message that would persuade other people too.  Its certainly a quick and memorable answer that low information Remainers can put forward when they find themselves arguing with equally low information Brexiteers.

And that’s the important point: its a metaphor that can be easily crafted into soundbites, Twitter nuggets and tabloid headlines.  Such messages need to be repeated over and over again for months on end if they are to have any effect.  I really hope that the message that the EU is ultimately a good investment seeps through to enough people by Thursday.

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