Brexiters Can't Keep Moving the Goalposts

16/06/2016 11:51

This week I unwittingly kicked off something of a Brexit twitterstorm. The reactions to one solitary tweet were intriguing, both in the sense of how twitter can confuse and clarify, but also how any sense of proportion in the Brexit debate has long since been lost. Twitter is clearly not generally a land of nuance and sophistication, but even by normal standards this particular twitterstorm was revealing.

The background was as follows; England's football team had just got their Euro2016 campaign underway with a 1-1 draw against Russia on Saturday (10 June). Encouraging though England's performance on the field was, events off the field were anything but. Russian hooligans rampaged in the stadium, and England fans found themselves embroiled in encounters with locals (and local police) in the run up to the game itself. As tensions were rising, a group of England fans started chanting about Brexit, the referendum on 23 June on whether the UK should remain in the EU.

Perhaps an unlikely topic for football supporters to get too excited about, although the chants themselves were hardly full of thoughtful insight. Indeed, the sound of "f*** off Europe, we're all voting out" soon drifted around the port city of Marseille.

On Sunday morning it became clear that quite a few England fans had been badly hurt in the impending violence. Indeed, a number were fighting for the lives.

It struck me as odd that England football fans were chanting for Brexit at the same time as a number of them are being treated for 'free' by French doctors in French hospitals on the back of a scheme developed within Europe to ensure that such provisions were offered free at the point of service (the European Health Insurance Card scheme, or EHIC).

The NHS ultimately covers the costs of treatment dished out under this scheme, but take the scheme away and there is no right to free at the point of service provision for any UK citizen at all. As the NHS itself puts it, a "valid European Health Insurance Card gives you the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland". Furthermore, the care is provided "on the same basis as it would to a resident of that country, either at a reduced cost or, in many cases, for free".

It struck me that some anti-EU football fans may now be finding themselves forced to make use of a scheme that they had publicly (if indirectly) been deriding a few hours earlier. So, I took to Twitter to say so.

It seems I hit a nerve; well, several hundred nerves - at last count, my tweet had received more nearly 4,000 retweets and likes.

Two particular groups seem to have got excited about it; supporters of Scottish nationalism appeared to like the perceived dig at England and the English, while 'Leavers', in general, and Ukipers more specifically, found crisp and clear (and often colourful) language with which to show they disagreed.

Why did this tweet go viral? Was there anything particular in it that meant it was more likely to catch the eye than most? One reason is almost certainly that the substance of the tweet can be contested. 140 characters is never enough to do justice to what is actually a complex issue and in one long sentence I was trying to summarise something that was in reality quite fiddly. The tweet is not, in other words, incorrect, but there are areas where it's easy to find something with which you disagree. Cue a twitterstorm.

Leaving the EU, for example, wouldn't by definition mean leaving the EHIC scheme. Switzerland, as a case in point, is a member of the EHIC, but not of the EU. Many respondents were very quick to point this out.

The thing that nonetheless struck me the most was how Brexiters were picking and choosing which Europe they wanted to talk about.

If the UK leaves the EU and stays in the EHIC scheme, then it has to accept the free movement of labour across all signatory countries. This is set out in an agreement within the context of the European Economic Area, an organisation that the UK would have to remain part of if it wanted to stay in the EHIC.

Maintaining open borders is something that Leavers by definition do not want to do. Indeed, controlling immigration is the leitmotif of the campaign for many. For them, a vote to leave the EU is by default a vote to leave the EEA. Put simply, if Brexiters want to 'take back control' of immigration - as they say they do - then that means leaving the EEA as well as the EU, and therefore waving goodbye to the EHIC.

Now, you may not care about the EHIC but you should care about a campaign that switches between talking about the EU, the EEA and some other undefined 'Europe', depending on what argument it wishes to make. Vote Leave campaigners have been adept at telling people what they don't like; power being held by unelected EU bureaucrats, large scale and unrestricted immigration and UK contributions to the EU budget.

But they have failed - no doubt deliberately - to really outline what life outside the EU would look like and how they are going to take Britain to this promised land. We have had hints, but no coherent future reality has been outlined and no method of getting there explained.

Be that as it may, one other thing is also clear. If current opinion polls are anything to go by, this strategy of vagueness looks like it may well be working. Make of that what you will.