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Europe

Autonomy, migration top agenda for Brexit’s ‘Leave’ camp

© Tony Todd / FRANCE 24 I Pippy Woodley complained that Britain had been subjected to “other people’s views" through its EU membership

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2016-06-21

As Britain prepares to vote in a decisive June 23 referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU, FRANCE 24 spoke to members of the United Kingdom Independence Party and other eurosceptics about why they want to leave the bloc.  

Members of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) gathered outside a bakery in Oakham, the small market town that is the capital of picturesque and staunchly Conservative Rutland county in the East Midlands, on Monday to hand out flyers.

But heavy rain soon forced the group to retreat to a nearby café for coffee and sandwiches. With them was Roger Helmer, the 72-year-old member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the East Midlands region.

Helmer has been an MEP since 1999, originally as a member of the Conservative Party. He defected to the UKIP in 2012.

In 2008, he wrote a blog post in which he described global warming as “a politicians' scam designed to centralise power and increase taxes". He holds much the same view of the EU.

Helmer described the EU parliament of which he is a member as “a spurious façade of democratic legitimacy”, with the bloc itself run by the European Commission.

“If we don’t like a government in this country, we can simply vote it out,” he told FRANCE 24. “You cannot do anything comparable with the EU, with its shifting alliances between parties and different countries.”

‘We simply want control’

What the UKIP wants, Helmer said, is to “regain control” of lawmaking and Britain’s borders, which are open to anyone with an EU passport who wants to move to the UK to live and work.

EU migration is the hot-button issue for the UKIP. In 2015, net migration to the UK in 2015 was 330,000, the highest on record. Half of these migrants came from the EU.

Helmer insists his party isn’t racist, and spoke of his admiration and respect for the Polish servicemen who had served on Britain’s side in World War II.

“I’ve talked to employers who say they love having Polish employees, that they have an excellent work ethic,” he said. “The National Health Service has a huge number of foreign nurses and doctors. We don’t want to send them all back.”

Instead, the UKIP wants to impose a points system “based on the ability to speak English and on essential skills that we need”, he said. “We simply want control on who comes in.”

A ‘Kafkaesque Fourth Reich’

Roger Hudson was busy leafleting the main car park in the shadow of Oakham’s medieval church.

“I don’t want to live in an evil, Kafkaesque Fourth Reich,” he said, campaigning separately from Helmer's group.

Hudson, who launched his tirade against the EU in near-perfect French (he looked after a château in the Ardeche region of France for a number of years), said he was eager to see a total collapse of the EU following what he hopes will be a vote for the UK to leave the bloc.

“Marine Le Pen is fine by me,” he said, in reference to the leader of France’s far-right anti-Europe National Front party, who he sees as France’s potential liberator from the shackles of EU membership.

Hudson, 71, who said he was “a bit of a maverick” and preferred to leaflet on his own, also praised Golden Dawn, the openly racist and eurosceptic Greek far-right party.

Other EU critics have also earned his praise. Victor Orban, the populist Hungarian leader who has slammed the EU’s response to the migrant crisis and wants to build a fence between his country and neighbouring Romania, “doesn’t mince his words and may be the saviour of us all”, Hudson concluded with a genial smile.

The shadow of Jo Cox's murder

Campaigning by all parties was put on temporary hold after the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox on June 16. Thomas Mair, the man who has been charged with her murder, reportedly cried "Britain First"-- the name of a far-right group -- during the attack and later gave his name in court as “Death to Traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The murder of a staunchly pro-EU MP has cast a long shadow over the debate and prompted a fair amount of criticism of the UKIP. A poster unveiled the same day by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, showing a line of migrants at the Croatian border with Slovenia, was criticised as being overtly xenophobic.

One UKIP sympathiser on the streets of Oakham admitted that the picture was “a bit over the top”.

Vic Burbidge, who also took the opportunity to explain his position in excellent French, expressed his love for Europe – but not the EU – and said Cox’s death had come as a shock. He told FRANCE 24 that the killing underscored a debate that had become “far too polarised” and had put the "Leave" campaign “on the back foot”.

Indeed, opinion polls conducted since her murder have shown public opinion swinging back towards remain.

Betting odds, which have form as a more reliable predictor of the outcome of referenda and elections (the bookies predicted the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 British general election more accurately than the polls), also consider the “Remain” camp to be the clear favourite.

“I think, and I hope, that by Wednesday the debate will be less emotional, less polarised, and that people will see the arguments for leaving the EU in a more rational light,” Burbidge said.

Misinformation and exaggeration

Burbidge pointed out inaccuracies and exaggerations made by both camps, including the official Vote Leave’s claim (shared by UKIP) that Britain gives £350 million (€455 million) a week to the EU, cash that posters and the Vote Leave “battle bus” implies would be spent on the NHS instead.

“There should be small print next to that claim explaining that this is the gross amount, and that the net amount is less than half of that,” he said. Burbidge went on to say that such dissembling from both the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns has meant that, “so far, we haven’t been able to have a proper debate at all”.

Pippy Woodley, a Conservative voter who like so many in this town is horrified by the prospect of remaining in the EU, chimed in with her own complaint that echoed the UKIP’s mantra: “We want our country back.”

Praising “wonderful Boris Johnson”, the Conservative MP and former London mayor who is head of the official “Leave” campaign, Woodley complained that Britain had been subjected to “other people’s views, not our own” through its EU membership.

Woodley told FRANCE 24 that she had heard a woman say: “I want to vote ‘Leave’, but please don’t tell my husband.” Wanting to vote “Leave”, she said, “almost makes you look slightly racist”.  

Date created : 2016-06-20

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