The first of the BBC’s series of prime-time EU referendum events took place this evening, with Andrew Neil interviewing Hilary Benn. The programme highlighted both the uneasy relationship between Benn and his leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Remain campaign’s difficulty in dealing with the immigration issue.
Andrew Neil began by putting to Hilary Benn a very Eurosceptic quote from Jeremy Corbyn about the EU from the Maastricht debate of the 1990s and asking Benn what Corbyn got wrong. To which Benn replied, rather uncomfortably, that the ‘Jeremy of today’ supports Britain staying in the EU. The Benn / Corbyn tensions were a feature of the interview as the shadow foreign secretary failed to agree with his leader that George Osborne’s Brexit economic forecasts are worthless and also wouldn’t echo Corbyn’s line that Labour would veto the proposed EU-US trade deal, TTIP, as it stands.
But the most difficult part of the interview for Benn was on immigration. Andrew Neil repeatedly pushed him on whether immigration could be controlled inside the EU, and Benn repeatedly flannelled. It was only at the third time of asking that Benn said, essentially, that EU immigration was necessary for membership of the single market and, therefore, worth it. Seeing as this is Remain’s worst argument on the subject, I don’t understand why they don’t go straight there instead of dragging out the discussion on one of their weakest issues.
Benn tried to finish on a more upbeat note by claiming that the EU had helped end centuries of war in Europe and that was a reason to stay in. But given that the failures of two of the EU's main projects—the Euro and the Schengen borderless zone—are now fanning the flames of extremism, this argument is far less convincing than it once was.