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Friday, February 18, 2011

Labouring under a misconception

Over on Comment is Free, blogger Joe Litobarski has written a piece on the recent murmurings that Labour is considering backing a straight in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership (an idea the Lib Dems committed to at the last election).

Leaving aside Litobarski’s discussion about the referendum, he makes a glaringly flawed assumption in his argument that Brits aren’t inherently eurosceptic but are really just, in his view, apathetic:
“The latest YouGov poll on UK voter priorities…shows the EU languishing at the very bottom of the table. Only 6% identified the EU as one of their top priorities – just above the oh-so-sexy issue of "transport" at 5%. In contrast, the most important issues for voters were the economy (82%) and immigration (a distant second at 43%). These were not atypical results – the EU regularly appears as the lowest priority in such surveys – and when people vote in a referendum they rarely make a decision based on their least important priority”
The fact is that while the EU’s institutions seem remote, their decisions have a significant impact on many of these areas:

• The EU’s raft of economic regulations has had a huge economic impact on the UK; Open Europe’s research has shown that complying with EU regulations has cost the UK £124 billion (£4,912 per household) since 1998. In the context of the perilous state of the public finances this is an exceptionally heavy burden.

• EU initiatives in the field of crime, immigration and asylum, clearly affect UK citizens; as we have pointed out here.

• Another example of how EU regulations can directly affect the lives of ordinary citizens is the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. The great fish fight campaign broadcast recently on Channel 4 showed how the CFP has simultaneously been an environmental catastrophe, endangered the livelihoods of fishermen and pushed up food prices for consumers; hardly a glorious hat-trick and one that people clearly responded to.

We could of course go on, but this ought to be sufficient proof of the disingenuous claim that Europe is a distant concern to the majority of people in the UK.


Joe Litobarski said...


But you've missed my point. When asked, voters invariably place the EU as one of their lowest priorities. It's not just the YouGov poll I quoted - you can find other surveys that show exactly the same thing.

However, what you then go on to argue is that - whilst people don't care about the EU directly - it nonetheless has a huge impact on the things that people DO actually care about (crime, immigration and the economy). But there's a flaw in your argument. Open Europe is obviously convinced of the strong negative connection between these issues and the EU (I'd disagree, but there we go) but in the greater public's mind that connection (whether positive or negative) is simply not being made. The overwhelming majority of Britons (83% according to Eurobarometer) know little or nothing about the EU. So, as you argue, the EU might very well be affecting issues people care deeply about but voters don't connect the two.

I know Open Europe's policy is anti-referendum (or so Mats told me last year), but I think you should also be pushing for an in-or-out referendum (actually, I think Open Europe should probably be pushing for an "In" vote as well). A referendum isn't a way to "end the debate" on the EU by silencing eurosceptics - it's a way to get a wider debate started; to force public figures to come out either in support or against and to back up their positions with reasons. Such a debate can only be healthy for our democracy.

Open Europe blog team said...

Thanks Joe - you're making some valid points and we're well aware of poll findings on the strength of feeling on the EU relative to other items.

However, it all depends on how you ask the question. For example, ask people to rate 'immigration from the EU' on a scale and we bet you it'll be up there. In fact, immigration to the UK now primarily flows from the EU so it's factually incorrect to treat the "EU" and "immigration" as two distinct, unrelated options in a poll question (we happen to believe that free movement of people has on balance benefited Europe, but that's besides the point). Or you can link it to the economy through, for example, the UK's exposure to the eurozone crisis (which is a huge threat to recovery). Or an area that increases the gaps between citizens and politicans (trust in politics etc).

The point is, precisely because the EU impacts on such a huge number of areas, presenting it as a separate entity in a poll question is wrong and the results should be taken with a pinch of salt.

It's good that the debate on a possible referendum is being had - there are pros and cons to an in/out referenum.