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Publicity, apathy and ignorace

About the author

A freelance writer and editor based in London, J Clive Matthews is Managing Editor of openDemocracy's EU and deliberative democracy blog, dLiberation.

In the real world he has co-authored two books and edited numerous others (ranging in subject-matter from movies to modern Russian politics), been acting editor on a glossy history and travel magazine, editorial consultant for a big name women's magazine, a freelance news editor for AOL UK, worked in both the House of Commons and the European Commission, and contributed to publications as diverse as Starburst and the Times Literary Supplement.

Best known as Nosemonkey online, he has been blogging about British and European politics daily for several years both at his own blog and sites like The Sharpener, General Election 2005 (now defunct), AgoraVox, France 24 and the Washington Post / Newsweek's Postglobal, as well as about movies for the BBC, and has been shortlisted for blog awards by the likes of the Guardian, Deutsche Welle International and the Weblog Awards, amongst others.

Ignorance is bliss

Deliberative polls are an unfamiliar concept. As they are designed to create a representation of what the public would think were they to have access to all the information and a chance to debate freely amongst themselves, there is always the danger that the public at large will respond to their results with a resounding "what? Who are you to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about?"

In a sense, of course, deliberative polls are a bit like juries with the need for a unanimous decision removed. The major difference - and one that cannot be overstated - is that we all understand the concept of juries, and accept their verdict (well, unless the trial involves OJ Simpson, at any rate...)

Over the last few weeks, I've been trying to keep track of mentions of the Tomorrow's Europe poll in the press and world of blogs. It hasn't been difficult - there's hardly been any. Supposedly the BBC's flagship current affairs show Newsnight is going to be attending to produce a report, and no doubt the results of the poll may attract a bit of attention, but in the run-up there's been hardly any coverage at all.

And herein lies one of the EU's fundamental problems: people simply aren't interested in the European Union. It's not a sexy subject and it rarely holds much excitement. This is why the only time the EU tends to feature in the news is when there's some supposed crisis - usually some apparently ridiculous new regulations (usually wildly misinterpreted).

How can you get people actively involved in an organisation they find mind-numbingly dull? As British politics has increasingly shifted towards discussions about the personalities of the leaders (viz. the recent debate over a possible UK general election being all about whether one MP, Gordon Brown - rather than the 645 other MPs elected last time around - has a mandate), who to look to in the EU as a personality? The president of the European Commission? The president of the European Parliament? The current EU president? (The holder's Portugal at the moment, by the way - and I'd lay a tenner on no more than 1 in 100 people picked randomly off the street being able to answer that without prompting.)

Hell, in the British system for electing MEPs you can't even vote for an individual, just a party. The other day I tried to remember the name of a single MEP for London. No chance.

With such a system, little wonder there is so much apathy, such low turnouts (the European average in the 2004 elections being just 45%). And with less than half the electorate bothering to vote on the rare occasions when the public can actually have a say in how the EU is run, never mind getting interest in the Tomorrow's Europe poll to get the public to accept the legitimacy of its findings - what hope is there for the EU itself to claim legitimacy?

The problem of the lack of publicity for the Tomorrow's Europe poll, in other words, shows that the problem is far deeper than merely the difficulty of getting "all Europe in one room", the poll's primary aim. Because even when you do manage to get people from all over the EU talking as one, just as with pretty much anything else the EU ever does, the vast majority of the population simply aren't interested.

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