by Oli Henman
Back in the European Commission for the Concluding Conference of the Plan D projects on 7-9 December - it seems that the Commission is keen to keep the follow-up process going even after the main headlines have happened.All the groups were present, including the continent-wide European Citizens' Consultations, the Notre Europe Deliberative Poll and the European Movement's Speak Up Europe. The idea this time was to draw together some conclusions from all the Plan D projects and offer an overview to be presented to the European leaders at the Council of Ministers in Lisbon.
My job was to act as the moderator. Tomorrow’s Europe gathered together four hundred people in the halls of the European Parliament in Brussels; they spoke more than twenty different languages and my task was to guide one group throughout the entire process; I was to ensure that ordinary European citizens would exchange opinions on difficult subjects such as the Union’s foreign policy and the global labour market, and to make sure they would agree on one or two questions to be posed within a plenary assembly to a group of experts in this field. In other words, I found myself moderating a working group formed by about twenty people coming from Italy, France, Belgium and Luxemburg. The participants’ professional experiences and political outlooks were so different that I expected the worst in terms of a productive debate. But then, having learnt to use the simultaneous translation, the participants instantly started to dialogue in a disciplined and constructive manner, emphasising the fact that languages are not such an insurmountable problem when one wishes to communicate. Explaining the rules under which the debate would take place and clarifying my role as a moderator turned out to play an important role in ensuring the success of the debate. This kind of experience in fact is based in the mediator’s independent attitude with his task to facilitate the debate without expressing his own opinion or in any manner orientating the discussion. My job in fact was to broaden the debate to all participants and to avoid the discussion being monopolised by any particularly active speaker.
A cliché has been shattered. European citizens are extremely interested in Europe and have clear ideas regards to how it should be and are able to speak as Europeans, not only as citizens of different countries. Tomorrow's Europe is proof of this; their consultative exercise involved a sample of representatives from the EU's 27 member states and swept away the stereotypes: there is a European public sphere that exists and wishes to make its own voice heard. "It is impossible to put together people speaking so many languages and who are so different; European policies are too difficult and complex to arouse the interest of common citizens; Europeans in reality do not exist, they do not share EU policies, hence the EU is a matter for politicians and bureaucrats". These are the clichés on Europe totally neutralised by the event.
(With thanks to Caffe Europa for this translation)
Who has ever stared into the eyes of European public opinion? Who has ever listened to its voice?
"Thousands and thousands of words have been written about Europe's public sphere, and there have been speculations and academic debates - says James Fishkin - but no one has ever actually observed or listened to European public opinion. At least until just a few days ago: all you need to do nowadays is type in the address of web site (http://www.tomorrowseurope.eu), or read the openDemocracy coverage, click play on a video player and there it is in front of our eyes; there we hear its voice, the voice of European public opinion."
But, of course, it's just not that simple. I've jotted down (literally) thousands of words today - re-writing, cutting and pasting, editing and starting again from scratch countless times - only to realise that there is no short, simple conclusion here. Because almost all points that could be considered failures with the Tomorrow's Europe poll could equally apply to all other forms of representative democracy.
For the last couple of days, winning over those sceptical of such democratic innovations as deliberative polling (assuming such innovations are valid, of course) has been my chief concern. But, with EU-centred innovations, we also still have the Eurosceptics.
I've already mentioned the dominance of eurosceptics in the online English language debate, largely due to the influence (and traffic-boosting transatlantic links to the closely-knit network of right-wing American blogs) of EU Referendum, independently run by two associates of the highly eurosceptic Bruges Group thinktank, one of whom also used to work for the UK Independence Party, before turning his back on them for being too amateurish (or so I believe).
However, due to the fleeting and superficial coverage of Tomorrow's Europe in the mainstream media - some TV coverage, the occasional short article, but nothing overly in-depth - it will be to the web that most people will look in the weeks and months to come. Amongst the online coverage now will be found EU Referendum's assertion that "what is delivered is a number of findings that are both pointless and irrelevant, except that they will be treated with undue reverence by the EU commission and its lackeys, who will cite them as evidence of what the 'citizens of Europe' think and want."
The answer turns on how we represent the small countries. By employing stratified random sampling (rather than simple random sampling) we can ensure representation of the small countries and, in theory, actually reduce sampling error. If we have separate strata that are mutually exclusive (in this case separate countries) and we randomly sample from each, we can actually produce a more representative sample of the overall population.
Here we come to the fundamental problem with the EU's drive for democracy - getting true representativeness is seemingly impossible in a body as vast and diverse as the European Union. Even ensuring fair representation for the member states is well nigh impossible - let alone ensuring that smaller than national-level groups are also represented. There will always be complaints: where are the German Turks? Where are the French Basques? Where are the Russian Estonians? Where are the Afro-Carribbean British?
The claim for the Tomorrow's Europe poll was always that it was going to be a "scientific sample" of the whole of the EU. Yet - as with the European Parliament - the forced inclusion of member states with smaller populations in such a sample instantly makes it look odd. Based on population size, a truly scientific random sample of 3,500 people from the whole of the EU should expect (on average) to contain just 2.5 Maltese - yet the Tomorrow's Europe sample, thanks to the member state weighting, contained 80.
From a PR point of view, this is understandable - ensure every member state is represented, the chance for media coverage is greatly increased. But, at the same time, it makes selling the poll as "scientific" rather harder.
A genuinely random poll of 3,500 people from the whole of the EU? Fine. One weighted to ensure the inclusion of someone from every member state? This sounds less random, more likely to contain some selection bias, and therefore less convincing.
My concerns about the statistical representativeness of the Tomorrow's Europe poll remain, despite Professor Fishkin's response - though I accept that my complete lack of knowledge of statistical theory may well be the reason why the sample, to me, doesn't seem quite right (be it for a possible under-representation of eurosceptics or the definite over-representation of people with higher educational qualifications or from smaller EU member states).
Fishkin laid out three criteria for success: was it representative, was it deliberative, and will decision-makers listen? But these criteria leave off the single most important - will the people accept the method? Because the end result of deliberative polling must be to get the people to acknowledge that such polls genuinely do reflect what the situation would be if the people themselves were better informed and more politically engaged. Otherwise the responses will always be similar to those I highlighted from Margot Wallstrom's blog.
So, be it statistically representative or not, the key problem remains - with my apparent confusion merely highlighting the issue. Tomorrow's Europe was designed as an exercise in encouraging participation and engagement. To get people involved, simplicity and transparency is key - both of process and of results. If - after nearly seven weeks spent covering the poll in-depth and questioning key organisers - I still don't quite understand how it all works or whether it should be listened to, what chance have the public as a whole?
James Clive Mathews has taken issue with the representativeness of the sample. In response to his query, we released the time 1 opinions of the 3,500. Our policy is never to do so prior to a Deliberative Poll because publishing poll results may influence the deliberation. But afterwards there is no harm. The time 1 results are just another poll.
The only way to compare statistically the answers to questions is to compare the means. But means put on a 0 to 1 scale are incomprehensible to journalists and the public so we released percentage breakdowns instead.
Mathews has conducted his comparison by picking out parts of questions (in fact, parts of one selected question only). When we compared the means for all the questions between the 3,500 and the 362, we found that the substantive differences were only 4% of what they could possibly have been. Even a cursory comparison of the answers will show that the differences are mostly small between the 3,500 and the 362.
As we continue to ponder the issue of representativeness, Paul Davies - formerly of the Electoral Reform Society - continues his series looking at the EU's only democratic institution (Part 1, 2, 3, 4):
Last time out we had a quick think about what it is that the European Parliament is, or rather should be, actually there for. In this, the final instalment of this particular group of posts, we look at how this purpose can possibly be achieved, or even brought within range of a very powerful purpose-spotting telescope.
That every member nation should be properly represented within the Parliament is without question. However, what the word 'properly' means in such a context is a mammothly moot point.
Were MEPs to be distributed in exact proportion to the relative populations of the countries they represent, Malta may as well not bother, for their share of the European Union's population wouldn't even be enough to claim a spot crammed in by the toilets behind the cheap seats.
As it is, seats in the European Parliament aren't organised like this.
With polls showing around 75% supporting a referendum on the EU reform treaty, the Conservative party repeatedly using the referendum as a fresh stick with which to beat Gordon Brown, and newspapers like the Sun and the Telegraph campaigning for the people to be allowed to have their say, in recent weeks British eurosceptics have been getting really rather excited. It has long been assumed that the UK tends towards euroscepticism, and the growing support for a referendum seemed to confirm that anti-EU types are in the majority.
So with the battle not yet won and referendum calls still reverberating around the country to apparent popular accalim, it's entirely understandable that the organiser's of Saturday's Referendum Rally in Westminster were expecting attendance in the region of several thousand. After all, if pro-foxhunting rallies in Cardiff could draw 6-10,000 a few years back, when a majority of the population were against foxhunting, surely something where the majority are in favour taking place in more easily-accessible London would do even better?
Nope. The final turnout has been estimated at somewhere in the region of just 3-500. Yep - that's three to five hundred. I'm not missing a zero, and that hyphen is not meant to be a comma.
Two weeks after the deliberative poll, and around a month after the initial poll, we now appear to have all the results we need to assess the representativeness of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, with the release of the results of the initialal poll of 3,500 (PDF). This was the group from which the sample of 362 was taken - and so their representativeness should be compared to this initial poll. I've already noted my suspicions about the demographic representativeness - but, of course, what's needed as much as anything in an exercise like this is representativeness of opinion.
So as one of my suspicions was that pro-EU types would be more likely to take part, let's take that as a first point of comparison - especially as this is surely the most easy to measure political opinion when it comes to any aspect of EU politics. As a bonus, support for the EU is one of the things tested in the regular Eurobarometer opinion polls (most recent PDF), and so this makes for an easy point of comparison to a larger sample.