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The problem of public ignorance, part 1

J Clive Matthews
27 September 2007

I've already mentioned the Financial Times poll on whether the UK should hold a referendum on the EU reform treaty, conducted back in June, and noted that a decent majority of Europeans want the chance to vote on whatever treaty / constitution eventually emerges for the future of Europe. But that's not all it revealed.

In the UK, we've now got everyone from the full-on eurosceptic UKIP and the loosely eurosceptic Tories through to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and europhile Young European Federalists, not to mention various Labour politicians from Keith Vaz to Tony Benn, all calling for a referendum. All are, most likely, hoping that the European public will back their own stance and therefore give them legitimacy. (Well, except the Tories, who are probably hoping that a British "no" vote under a Labour government would let them nicely off the hook, and avoid yet more splits like those seen during the 1990s...)

In an ideal world, yes, an EU-wide referendum - every country voting on the same day, every country needing to return a majority on a simple yes/no question - would be the best way to secure proper legitimacy for the next step in the EU's evolution.

But the thing is, unless the people voting in the referendum really know what they're voting about, the whole exercise will be pointless. As happened in the pro-EU camp after the French and Dutch constitutional referenda, and in the anti-EU camp after the British EEC referendum back in the 1970s, the losing side will simply claim that they would have had more support if the people only knew what they were doing.

This is born out fully by the FT poll - 69% of Brits surveyed want a referendum. 55% haven't got the first clue what the EU constitution was actually all about.

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