Question time: A redraft of the phrasing on the EU referendum ballot has merit – but more needs to be done to get the right answer


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“Reluctant” probably sums up British voters’ attitude to the European Union. That, though, will not be an option on the referendum ballot paper, and scepticism about the European project makes the exact wording of the question of vital importance.

We now have a better idea about what it will be. Whereas all had assumed that the question would be framed to elicit a “yes” or “no”, the Electoral Commission has now advised Parliament that it should be in the form of a choice between to “remain” and to “leave”. Neither is elegantly formulated, but that is not the point. What is important is the likely political impact of this change – more than it might first appear.

This is because every pollster and psychologist will testify that human beings are predisposed to answer “yes” to questions. For this reason, the Electoral Commission prefers to avoid the word and, although it has not always enjoyed a good press, it has acquitted itself well here.

At this stage, the polls predict a victory for those who seek to keep Britain as a member of the European club, though there remain grounds for pessimism. The most immediate is the migrant crisis, which seems to have no end in sight. News coverage has given the impression that the EU is responsible for some sort of mass invasion, and that one morning we will discover half of the population of Syria and Eritrea camped out in Kent.

Not that most of the press needs any encouragement to knock out an unrelentingly negative view of Europe, of course. This is in marked contrast to the position the last time that Europe was the subject of a referendum, in 1975. Then, the media was heavily weighted towards staying in. And media reporting and commentary does have an impact: the No 1 concern of voters expressed in opinion polls is now immigration. If the same sort of panic is still in play when the referendum comes round, all rational arguments about the wider benefits of the EU risk being swamped.

Not for nothing, then, has Nigel Farage, leader of Ukip, made clear that his campaign to get us out of Europe will be focused on the immigration question. There are, though, two problems with this (apart from the positive story that immigration has to tell). First, that Mr Farage has not been elected, selected or otherwise appointed to the role of leading the anti-EU campaign and probably won’t be, given his ability to divide opinion. Second, therefore, the anti-EU campaign seems destined to be a fractured affair. The pro-EU groupings appear to be a more pragmatic bunch, willing to set aside differences for a common good. They’ll still need to win the arguments, though.

Europe itself does bear some of the blame for what is befalling it. Some EU states have not registered refugees properly, while the Schengen rules look increasingly quaint in the current circumstances, born of a world where freedom of movement across borders was decisively impeded by the Iron Curtain and a string of dictators from Gaddafi to Assad Snr, who were unwilling to let any of their citizens go anywhere.

For the sake of Britain voting  to remain when the time comes, and proving that the EU can take action when needed, all of its members should come together to find a more concerted response. This means more assistance for the refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere; each EU member state agreeing to take a quota of migrants; and, difficult as it is, the defeat of Isis. Razor wire, tear gas and naval patrols are not the answer.