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The impossibility of EU debate

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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.

Shouldn't be this heated

As the Tomorrow's Europe deliberation was designed to encourage debate as much as anything, it was intriguing to see this analysis of the current state of the EU debate in the UK over at A Fistful of Euros:

"More than ever before, the entire tone of the debate about Europe in the UK seems deranged. But this time out, it also seems to be increasingly recognised that this is so.

"In a sense, the whole row has become conventionalised to a degree where it is a mere set of gestures. I recall the debates about the Euro in the late 90s and early 00s, and on the various treaties of the same period, to say nothing of the Maastricht ratification, the daddy of them all. This has had none of the same fire, despite the Sun reaching new heights of linguistic escalation and new depths of journalistic debasement."

Let's face it, if debates revolve almost entirely around unsupported assertions and overblown rhetoric, they tend to do little more than further polarise opinion. Even the terminology of the EU debate - where everyone seems to be forced into either the "eurosceptic" or "europhile" camp, with no room for the myriad shades of gray, and "eurosceptic" these days tending to mean withdrawalist rather than merely someone who can see the flaws of the EU - seems designed to preclude genuine discussion.

At some point, for coherent positions to be formed, it is necessary to resort to fact. But one of the many troubles with the EU is that facts are often very hard to come by. The Reform Treaty is a prime example of this, as former Ambassador Brian Barder points out:

"whatever the rights and wrongs of an undertaking given by a previous administration, a referendum now would be unacceptably dangerous for Britain, not because the government can't trust the British people to make a sensible decision but because the outcome would be vulnerable to the lies and misrepresentations of the fanatically Europhobic and unscrupulous tabloids, and similarly unprincipled elements of the Conservative party, whose real objections are not to the small print of the treaty but to British membership of the European Union. The prospects of a referendum result that reflected a mature weighing up of the overall pros and cons of ratification, after exhaustive analysis and discussion of the issues and the likely consequences of non-ratification, would be almost nil"

Add to that the sheer complexity of the document, even if the debate were to be conducted in mature terms, who could really hope to understand it. A typical passage from the new treaty quoted by Barder epitomises everything that makes sensible discussion of the EU so damn hard:

"Articles 29 to 39 of Title VI of the EU Treaty, which relate to judicial cooperation in criminal matters and to police cooperation, shall be replaced by Articles 61 to 68 and 69e to 69l of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; they shall be amended as set out in Article 2, points 64, 67 and 68, of this Treaty. The heading of the Title shall be deleted and its number shall become the number of the Title on final provisions."

With things this opaque, what hope is there?


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