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The problem of public ignorance, continued

J Clive Matthews
1 October 2007
Are we too ignorant to understand the EU?

Following part 1 of my look at the lack of knowledge of the EU among the public at large, part 2 became a look at the likelihood of Commissioner Wallstrom's calls for a proper, informed public debate over the EU's future - a problem that lies at the heart of the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll, and on which Friends of Europe's Giles Merritt touches in his intriguing look at the need for euroscepticism, published earlier today. Now comes part three...

Any long-term EU watchers will doubtless be aware that the European Union is usually both incredibly dull and insanely complex. I don't pretend to understand half of the bloody thing, despite being fairly intelligent, well-educated, and having worked in politics in both Brussels and Westminster in my time. Having read the old constitution text all the way through, though I think I understood most of it the damned thing was so long I really couldn't be certain - and the new Reform Treaty merely exacerbates the problem.

But while supporters of the referendum idea always shout this down with accusations that even bringing it up shows a patronising, paternalistic, anti-democratic contempt for the public's intelligence, it's simply true: the European public as a whole do not and probably can not understand enough about the complexities of EU reform to make an adequate judgement in a referendum.

That lack of understanding would most likely lead to a low turn-out (as with the 42% turnout in the Spanish referendum on the old Constitution). It would also mean that the extremists at either end of the EU spectrum - the withdrawalists on one side and the superstatists on the other - will get to settle the matter by sheer weight of numbers and organisational skill.

In the UK, of course, the Eurosceptics are far better mobilised, and have the press on their side to boot. In any referendum, following a solid two decades of populist (and frequently exaggerated if not outright inaccurate) anti-EU rhetoric seeping from press and politicians in a constant stream, the UK's population is likely to vote "no" not because they've assessed the merits of the constitution / treaty, but through petty partisan/patriotic ignorance.

That, at least, is how it will most likely be represented by supporters of the new treaty.

The added problem with a UK vote is the ongoing uncertainty over whether or not Gordon Brown is going to call a general election. In the French referendum on the EU constitution, mid-way through the term of a decidedly unpopular president, turnout was 70%, and the result went against the government. In that case, the "Non" was blamed on disatisfaction with Chirac rather than a dislike for the text itself, despite one of the most informed and lively public debates on EU reform yet seen in a major member state.

So, if a UK referendum were to be held before a general election, the result could be dismissed as being due to domestic irritation; if after, it could be dismissed due to an almost inevitable low turnout. And it's all the fault of the public being seen to be ignorant.

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