Yet the “Remain” campaign is little better. Its main message is fear, highlighting the costs of leaving the EU and the failure of the “Leave” camp to explain how trade deals and other important details will work. That is part of the argument, but by far not the most important bit. Britain is a big country and will survive in or out. The great danger of leaving is the effect on the rest of Europe. Leaving will be a costly and damaging blow to our allies and to the European security order. Rules-based international cooperation is the best way of keeping people like Vladimir Putin at bay. It could be a lot better in many ways—but leaving the EU is going to make things worse, not better.
That is a sin of omission. Worse is that a centerpiece of the “Remain” campaign is the sound of snouts voting for the trough. Many British voters are aware that Brussels decision-making favors insiders over outsiders. So having the beneficiaries of cultural and scientific subsidies loudly declaiming the virtues of EU membership is not just unconvincing, it is offputting.
This poses a dilemma to thoughtful voters. A vote for Brexit feels like an endorsement of the opportunistic and unscrupulous Mr. Johnson and his even less appealing allies—the bombastic Nigel Farage and the litigious (for want of a better pejorative adjective) George Galloway. If Britain leaves the EU, they would be triumphant—and more likely to be running the country. A combination of Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Martin Schulz (heads of the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament, respectively) suddenly starts to look quite attractive.
Yet a vote to remain in the EU involves similar problems. Voting “Remain” tacitly endorses the shallow and opportunistic David Cameron, and a whole cabal of besuited, well-paid insiders. Do we really want to give them a boost? Moreover, a strong part of the case for staying in the EU is that it is reformable. These people do not inspire confidence in their abilities to make power structures in Brussels leaner, cleaner and clearer.
The referendum is likely to be settled via a race to the bottom. The side that disgusts voters most will lose to the one that most scares them. This is no way to make a decision that will shape Britain’s future for a generation.
A general election features bad arguments too, but there is room for other criteria: the record of the past few years, the party programs, the personalities involved and—a particular feature of the British system—local peculiarities. Voters cast their ballots with all these in mind. And the outcome is mediated by the need to form a government and pass laws. Referendums are inherently binary, and risky.
It is not too late to turn the argument around—not least by bringing in fresh outside figures who have won acclaim for their efforts in other walks of life, who can make positive arguments about why we, and our friends, will be better off if we stay closely involved in European decision-making. But their argument loses a lot of force when it features a self-interested “because.”