The campaign to leave the EU takes British politics to a new low

By Chaminda Jayanetti

Nigel Farage today once again sought to use the dreadful recent sexual assaults in Cologne to further his own campaign to leave the EU.

"I think a lot of women are saying 'Goodness gracious me, if we vote to stay in, is this what's coming to this country?'," the Ukip leader told LBC.

"Those 1,000 young men that were outside the train station in Cologne will, within three to four years, have German passports, which means effectively they can come here.

It is easy to dismiss these comments as the sort of fear-mongering rhetoric which Farage has made an entire career out of, but it appears to be part of a deliberate strategy from the campaign to leave the EU.

Farage's comments follow those from the former aide to Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, who is the current campaign director of Vote Leave. Cummings wrote on Twitter last week that: "EU law = once Cologne sex abusers get citizenship they can fly to UK & there's nothing we can do. #VoteLeave = safer choice".

Disingenous as it may be, this stuff cuts through. It conflates post-Cologne fear of refugees with post-Paris fear of terrorism and general disquiet over European freedom of movement and melts them all into one shrill dog whistle. Handily, it doesn't even need outright racism to hit home. After all, who doesn't want to keep rapists out?

As Farage told the BBC's Sunday Politics show last week: "What you can't do is take away from ordinary folk out there scenes such as Cologne and saying to themselves in three years' time all these people will have EU passports and will be able to come to Britain."

The signs are that this approach is starting to pay off. While most polling so far has had Remain in the lead, several of the polls conducted since the Cologne attacks have shown Leave nosing in front. Cologne won't be the only factor – but at a time when immigration is the key driver of Euroscepticism, the attacks of New Year's Eve have both crystallised and galvanised the case to quit Europe.

Farage also spoke about the Cologne attacks earlier this month

But does Farage actually have a point? Could the Cologne sex attackers claim citizenship and come to Britain?

The answer is no. The judicial process against the New Year's Eve sex attackers is at a very early stage. Only this week was the first man arrested on sexual assault charges in relation to the Cologne attacks. We don't yet know who did what, let alone what their nationality and immigration status is. But German law is clear – under the country's Nationality Act, foreigners cannot become naturalised German citizens if they have been "sentenced for an unlawful act". Minor sentences are excluded from this rule, but rapists and sexual assailants will not escape so lightly. Those convicted of the Cologne attacks will be unable to claim German citizenship and will be unable to settle in Britain.

In fact, Germany's justice minister Heiko Maas said in the wake of the attacks that those responsible could be deported from the country, even if they were seeking political asylum. "Anyone who believes they can breach law and order must be punished – no matter where they come from," he was reported as saying in early January.

But is it feasible that everyone responsible for what was a mass attack reportedly involving hundreds of people will be arrested and convicted? Of course not. But even if some New Year's Eve sex attackers slip avoid detection, and eventually qualify for and achieve German citizenship – what makes Farage think they will then immediately come to Britain?

It takes a special level of national narcissism to convince ourselves that across Germany tens of thousands of refugees are trying to make a life for themselves, settling down, maybe starting a family, learning the language, finding work of whatever kind, establishing new roots, just so they can achieve a passport in that country and then immediately up sticks and move to Britain. Why would they? What is so great, so remarkable, so outstanding about Britain compared to every single other EU member state that they will want to come here instead of staying in their adopted homes?

Fear is the most powerful force in electoral politics. Forget woolly talk of hope and vision and positive campaigning – that's empty virtue signalling by strategists. The EU referendum will be a battle of fear against fear. It's no accident that Cummings referred to the "safer choice" in his tweet.

The Leave campaign knows it has the harder task – it must convince voters to abandon the safety of the status quo. Even the Yes Scotland campaign, which prided itself on its positivity, relied heavily on portraying the Union as the cause of poverty. In this far more attritional EU vote, the Leave campaign must convince voters of the horrors of membership. If that means weaponising the Cologne sex attacks – well, that's probably what we told focus groups works on us. It probably does.

The Remain campaign is hardly free of blame either. Core to its strategy is creating maximum uncertainty over the terms of Brexit. No Plan B can be spoken of, no contingencies can be leaked. David Cameron will go to Brussels, get a deal – and trumpet it as the basis for rekindling our marriage vows with Europe. It won't make much difference to the key criticisms people have of the EU. But it will provide certainty and, by extension, safety. Vote to Remain, and we know where we stand. Vote to Leave, and we won't know what our trade deals will be, who will be allowed to stay or go, whether our exports will be hit with tariffs, whether Scotland will try to quit the Union – we'll be negotiating for divorce in the dark. And the dark is scary. 

Three whole years after Cameron pledged an in-out EU referendum, the Remain campaign will make as if nobody in Whitehall or Westminster has a clue what will happen if Britain dares to quit, that the shops will run out of bread and the lights will go out the morning after a vote to Leave. This is their strategy – Vote Our Way Or Else.

But while the Remain campaign may be treating the public like idiots, so far it's the Leave campaign that is really surpassing expectations.

And by using women's violated bodies to win votes, the campaign to leave the EU is taking British politics to a dangerous new low.

Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist. From 2010 to 2015 he was a researcher with the False Economy project, monitoring the impact of public funding cuts, but now writes independently.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.