Michael Dougan, professor of European law and Jean Monnet chair in EU law at the University of Liverpool, has received “maybe about 15,000 emails in the past week, 10 days”.
While “the great majority are basically saying ‘thank you for doing your best to inject some evidence and analysis into an otherwise very poor debate’,” he has also received “quite a few typed letters, and even handwritten letters, through the post accusing me of being a paedophile and hoping that I suffer a painful and bloody death”.
Is that rather disturbing? “If you grew up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s you usually have a bit of a thick skin for cowardly insults,” he said.
What prompted all this was a recording of a lecture by Professor Dougan on the European Union referendum – in which he accused the Leave campaign of “dishonesty on an industrial scale” – being uploaded to YouTube on 14 June. Since then it has racked up more than 500,000 hits, not bad for a 25-minute talk by an academic whose research specialisms include EU constitutional law, the single market and EU welfare law.
The lecture sees him tackle the “myth” that the Westminster Parliament is not the UK’s supreme law-making authority; describe the “enormous technical undertaking” of disentangling 40 years of EU law from UK law and the “enormous delegation of power from Parliament to the government” this will entail; and detail the period of “about 10 years” that experts in the field believe it will take to negotiate an agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Professor Dougan spoke to Times Higher Education soon after appearing as a witness before the House of Commons Treasury Committee on 5 July, at a hearing on “the UK’s future economic relationship with the European Union”.
The video of his lecture, he explained, was uploaded by Liverpool colleagues who wanted to share it with friends. He saw the popularity of the video as a sign that “people don’t want to be infantilised and they don’t want to be lied to”, and that “they want to be able to make their minds up in an informed way”.
Professor Dougan said that his critics have accused him of only analysing the arguments of the Leave campaign. But while “the Remain campaign’s arguments were primarily economic” and outside his discipline, he said that he can focus on the Leave campaign’s claims about sovereignty and constitutional issues “because that is where my disciplinary skills allow me to focus. And they were dishonest on virtually every imaginable count.”
The Remain campaign and the media, Professor Dougan argued, “just didn’t have the competence and the knowledge to call this out. You would watch programmes where someone from Leave would say ‘the European army is on its way’ or ‘Turkey’s going to join and we can’t stop it’ and neither the journalist interviewing them or the Remain advocate…seemed to be able to say ‘that’s just completely untrue’.”
Asked what role academics might have to play in ensuring a better quality of debate post-referendum, Professor Dougan said that the first role “is to try to provide policymakers and the media with some of the actual informed, objective, evidence-based analysis that was lacking before the referendum, but needs to inform policymaking after the referendum”.
Yet this may be an uphill struggle given that Leave campaigners dismissed the authority of “experts” who sought to question their claims, and facts seemed to be dismissed as a key element in political campaigns by some on the Leave side. Arron Banks, the UK Independence Party and Leave.EU donor, told The Guardian after the referendum about advice that he had received from US political strategists. “What they said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it…You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the [Donald] Trump success,” said Mr Banks.
Not all opinions are equal
Professor Dougan said that it was vital to “vocally counter this really quite poisonous idea that somehow experts are not to be listened to; that the world is made up of opinions and everyone’s opinion is equal; and if someone has spent an enormous amount of time and training…building up a knowledge of an area that somehow they are to be rubbished and demonised”.
In terms of his own future role as an academic, Professor Dougan described himself as having “a relatively good understanding of how the European Economic Area agreement works. There aren’t many people in the country who have.
“So obviously if it feels like we’re looking at some sort of EEA relationship for the UK, or a modified EEA relationship, then if I can help increase the public understanding of what that would entail – its advantages and its disadvantages – then it’s something I would be very happy to do, of course.”
According to Professor Dougan, the main advantages of an EEA deal (such as that currently subscribed to by Norway) would be that it was “as good as you can get to maintaining your access to the single market and to many of the protections that the single market brings to businesses, to consumers, to individuals, without actually being a member of the EU”.
But he said of the main disadvantage: “Anybody who tries to raise the sovereignty criticism of the EU and points to the EEA in its place is really deeply deluded – because membership of the EEA means having all of the obligations [of EU membership], but no real say in making the law.”
One key factor is that all the non-EU member states that are currently part of the EEA subscribe to free movement of people with the EU.
Therefore, the “main stumbling block” to the UK reaching an EEA-style deal, argued Professor Dougan, is the Leave campaign’s “really distorted and quite poisonous discourse about EU migration”. This means that “we might end up in a situation where we can’t subscribe to the EEA because of the type of debate about immigration that the Leave campaign actively encouraged in the country,” he added.
But is it feasible that the UK could strike a deal that combined EEA membership with some form of limitation to free movement of people?
“That’s really wishful thinking,” replied Professor Dougan. He said that “joining the EEA requires the approval of every single EU member state and the European Parliament, every single EEA state and also Switzerland – so we’re talking about 30-odd vetoes over our potential membership of the EEA”.
He continued: “Why would the EU, or any member of it, think that the UK, after everything that’s happened, should be able to cherry-pick all of the best bits of the internal market that suit it, but opt out of a core part of the internal market based on a debate [about immigration] which we all know was deeply distorted and quite unjust?”
So does Professor Dougan believe that Brexit will actually happen? “I think that’s a judgement for our Parliament to make,” replied Professor Dougan. “Not our government, our Parliament.”