UKIP leader Nigel Farage has taken a page from Donald Trump’s political playbook, tapping into Britons’ economic anxieties, concerns about immigration and growing frustration with political classes to fuel support for a Brexit — and it appears to be working. In early February, support for Brexit rose to 45 percent. If the pro-EU camp expects to defeat the populist campaign waged by Farage and other Brexiteers, its leaders will have to radically improve their pitch and reach well beyond the usual suspects for support.
In the first two months of 2016, multinational banks pointed to how Brexit would jeopardize their London operations — HSBC could move 1,000 bankers to Paris, Credit Suisse opened a Dublin office in anticipation of a potential Brexit, and JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank indicated they would relocate operations if Britain were to leave the Union. JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon went so far as to say Brexit would “reverse decades of growth for international banks in London.”
But to make a convincing case among the electorate, pro-EU advocates need to shift focus away from the risks to their own operations, and more clearly articulate how Brexit would disrupt the lives of working-class Brits, and small businesses. Post-recession polling shows the public feels anxious about the economy, distrusts banks and has pessimistic views about their financial future. They need to be reassured.
Consider, for example, that Barclays’ lending to small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) recently reached nearly £13 billion; that HSBC set aside £8 billion for loan offerings to SMEs in the U.K.; or that Deutsche Bank supports small business loans. These important investments — which Brexit would put at risk — are exactly the type of points pro-EU supporters should be emphasizing.
Late last month, 200 executives from global companies — including banks — signed a letter to the Times of London expressing their support for the U.K.’s membership in the EU. They warned “leaving the EU would deter investment, threaten jobs, and put the economy at risk” and stated “Britain will be stronger, safer, and better off remaining a member of the EU.”
The letter marked an important step forward — by pointing to “investment” and “jobs” — but the pro-EU coalition needs to extend its reach beyond the City and the Financial Times. It should look to the Daily Mail and the local publications, radio stations and social media accounts that reach Euroskeptic voters, including the Newham Recorder, the Northumberland Gazette or LBC talk radio. Seven sentences in the Times of London isn’t exactly going to cut it.
In the U.S., we witnessed a related populist battle over the Export-Import bank, which finances U.S. companies competing in overseas markets. Tea Party and conservative activists pressured Congress to allow the Ex-Im bank to expire on July 1, 2015, asserting that the bank distorted export markets and “poorly managed corporate welfare.”
In order to re-energize support for the bank, proponents, including Boeing and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, shifted the focus of their messaging down the supply chain — highlighting the bank’s benefit to small business (instead of large exporters). These efforts broke through the “District bubble” and drove favorable coverage in local markets. Ultimately, Ex-Im allies’ efforts were successful, moving Congress to reauthorize the bank in December 2015.
President Obama will visit Europe in April and there have been reports he will make a case for the U.K. remaining in the EU. His engagement is especially timely as the U.S. negotiates the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), where U.K. membership in the EU remains critical to advancing U.S. interests in Brussels. Phil Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said, “we welcome an outward-looking European Union with Britain in it. We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice, and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe … We want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest.”
I was in London the day after President Obama’s historic 2008 presidential win and witnessed the incredible goodwill and emotion his election generated across the country. As the President prepares to address the referendum, it will be critical he taps into the emotion from 2008 and directly addresses the economic insecurity that is felt across the U.K.
Obama should argue that Brexit will imperil small businesses and British workers. American businesses should do their part to reach beyond the City and appeal to the British working class. On the basis of our common heritage and strength of alliance, the U.S. needs to show support for Britain remaining in the EU. And Britain’s pro-EU advocates should take a page out of Obama’s playbook: Appeal to those who face the greatest share of the economic risk.