Monday, August 10, 2009

Spin spin spin

Before disappearing on holiday, EU Communications Commissioner Margot Wallstrom (who, BTW, will have earned more than £2 million in basic salary when her term ends in November, and who will then receive an extra £1.8 million in pension payments and so-called 'transitional' and 'resettlement' allowances), has today posted a response to the recent claims by Swedish think-tank Timbro that the EU uses propaganda to promote the concept of EU integration.

This may or may not have been spurred by an article today by Open Europe in Sweden's biggest newspaper, Aftonbladet, on the same subject. (See here for an English version of the arguments).

As well as the usual predictable and unconvincing arguments about how the Commission is, in fact, using our money to "promot[e] questioning of what the EU does, and action to change it" (ha!), Wallstrom also makes a shaky counter-claim, which on close inspection is a classic example of exactly the kind of spin for which she is being criticised.

She says:

"Some media who picked up the report made sweeping claims along the lines that ‘every time’ the public is consulted about the EU they say ‘No’ and that this proves the unpopularity of the EU. The fact is that since 1972, no less than 35 referenda have been held on EU-related issues, only 9 of which produced negative results, two of which were in Norway."

Let's take a look.

First of all, 17 of these 35 referendums took place in countries outside the EC/EU as they considered whether or not to join. Norway, for instance, voted against twice and Aland Island (a dependency of Finland) voted in favour. One referendum was held in the UK to decide if it should remain in the EC and one was held in France prior to the first enlargement in 1973 whether to allow new members.

In other words, 19 out of 35 referenda have been held to decide whether to join the EC/EU or related questions as in France and the UK.

Margot knows fine well that usually, when people talk about rejecting further EU integration in referendums, they are not referring to countries voting on EU membership. To suggest otherwise risks muddling the difference between how people feel about further EU integration, or specific policies such as the Euro, with how they feel about membership per se. As we've argued many times before, over-simplifying this issue only serves to disenfranchise the vast majority of people who are in favour of their country's EU membership, but who do not support giving ever more powers to the EU.

The remaining 16 referenda were held to approve policy or ratify treaties (SEA, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, the European Constitution, Treaty of Lisbon). 7 out of these 16 referenda returned negative results.

(Wallstrom seems to have sensibly discounted the two 'yes' referendums which should arguably have never been held in the first place, since they were repeats of referendums in which the public had already said 'no' - the second Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, and the second Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty).

After 1998, the overwhelming trend is quite clear - 6 out of 8 referenda on treaties and policy issues have returned negative outcomes.

Post-1998 referenda:

Nice, 2001: Ireland was the only country to hold a referendum. Negative outcome. It subsequently voted again and said yes.

Euro, Denmark 2000: Negative outcome.
Euro, Sweden 2003: Negative outcome.

European Constitution Mark I 2005: Spain and Luxembourg both voted in favour and the Netherlands and France voted against.

European Constitution Mark II (Treaty of Lisbon) 2008: Ireland only country to hold a referendum: Negative outcome.

Note that turnout was 42% in Spain. Compared with 69% in France, 62% in the Netherlands, and 53% in Ireland - all of which voted no, but were ignored and overridden. (Luxembourg has compulsory voting, so a fair comparison of turnout there is not possible. However note that a smaller percentage said 'yes' in Luxembourg than said 'no' in the Netherlands).

While we're at it, we also find the following claim particularly interesting:

"The European Radio Network and Euronews receive some EU funding because they meet the aim of providing a cross-border platform for news, analysis and discussion and helping to create a European public space for debate and discussion but both have complete editorial independence."

How then, does Wallstrom explain this March 2009 Commission policy document, which describes EuroNews and the radio network etc as the Commission's "corporate communication"?

Answers please. Or is the whole of 'DG Communication' on holiday this month?

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