“Not enough people care enough”.
Thus spake arch-eurosceptic Richard North of EU Referendum yesterday with regards to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the distinct lack of any significant public outrage. It hits the nail right on the head, but don’t expect too much resignation from that quarter just yet.
As I’ve argued in more detail elsewhere, no one cares about the EU. Sure, if you go up to them and chuck half truths like the classic “80% of our laws come from Brussels” or “EU regulations cost us £66 billion” then they may get temporarily miffed that Johnny foreigner has some say over how our country is run. But the annoyance is fleeting – not least because even the most credulous person will be aware that self-confessed eurosceptics and withdrawalists are hardly the most impartial source for EU statistics, and that – thanks to a combination of the EU’s complexity and abysmal record-keeping – there’s no way of verifying such claims.
But the overwhelming EU-apathy (rather than EU-scepticism or EU-philia) of the majority of the population is not through mere laziness. Being apathetic is an entirely rational choice. Because the major concern for the average person is not sovereignty, the place laws come from, or where their tax money goes. All these are, effectively, abstract notions that affect their lives not a jot. What matters to them is their daily lives – and on this, to most people, the EU appears to have little impact.
“So a chunk of my tax is going to the EU – so what?”, they think (or would if they could be bothered). “It’s not like if we pulled out I’d be paying any less – the government would just waste it elsewhere. Westminster or Brussels, what’s the real difference? I’m highly unlikely to have voted for the person who takes the final decision in any case – and the vast majority of all laws are drawn up by unelected civil servants no matter where they stem from.”
Because of this, the general attitude is a resounding “don’t know, don’t care” – and it’s an entirely rational ignorance.
Of course, pointing to the ignorance of the population is no justification for anything. That way lies the rationalisation of dictatorship, slavery, wife-beating, whatever – it’s the age-old reasoning behind every bit of oppression in history (it’s for their own good, you know…).
But, of course, the people DO care about things. Just not the EU.
Instead, what matters most to the people (at least in the UK) is, apparently immigration (43%), crime (41%), health (36%), defence and terrorism (22%), with Europe scoring a paltry 4%. On immigration, EU membership enables far closer co-ordination with our neighbours to prevent illegal immigration than would be possible with a series of bilateral agreements. The European arrest warrant and moves for closer co-operation between EU police forces should soon (hopefully) make all these scares about foreign criminals a thing of the past, as well as enable swifter justice for offenders who flee to the continent. Health policy is barely affected by EU membership, though through the EU’s influence we will shortly all be able to use the health services of all other member states, should we so wish (and the UK’s odd policy of allowing foreign non-taxpayers to use the NHS for free is nothing to do with the EU, if you were wondering). Finally, though the EU has little to no say in the UK’s defence policy, EU-wide anti-terror legislation and coordination has led to far speedier crackdowns than any individual member state could have managed on their own (remember the 21st July wannabe London bomber arrested in Rome? Just one of many…)
The thing is, in a democracy you need to get people to back your position in large numbers. This is something the anti-EU brigade have singularly failed to do at election after election, during which time all three major parties have become more or less pro-EU membership. The EU could well be the worst thing that’s ever happened to this country but the people, it would seem, are still not sufficiently against it to say enough is enough despite decades of anti-Brussels propaganda in every major newspaper in the land (Sun, Times, Telegraph, Mail, Express, News of the World, and occasionally the Mirror). Hence UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s failure to support the Lib Dems’ call for a referendum on EU membership, despite that being precisely what UKIP is supposedly aiming for down the line.
Plus, of course, getting people to vote for a radical change is very hard indeed. The status quo is pretty much always preferred, up to the point that either our daily lives are adversely affected or the alternative seems just so damned wonderful as to be irresistible. At the moment, although the EU does affect our daily lives, for the most part this impact is unnoticed and for the most part more or less beneficial; the idea of an ex-EU Britain, meanwhile, remains vague and worrying. Who would vote to be the unpopular kid at school who has to play on his own when they could be part of the clique?
So yes, by misrepresentation of what the Lisbon Treaty is and does you can briefly get up some anger and excitement from the general population – hence all the calls for a referendum a few months back. But for most people it’s hard to stay angry for long, especially about the EU – after a while, they tend to realise that they don’t really know that much about what it is they’re getting angry about and start to lose interest. (Everyone thinks they know what they’re talking about when it comes to immigration, crime, health, terrorism and the like, because we’ve all got more or less direct experience of them all – while most people are more or less aware that they know nothing of the workings of the European Union, because it’s simply too vast, complex and packed with jargon to make sense of.)
Plus, of course, the EU is simply not interesting enough to be worthy of anyone’s attention – which is precisely why it only ever makes the papers when there’s some new scare over a (usually misread) bit of EU legislation. Bureaucracy is boring, and the EU is nothing if not a bureaucracy – albeit a far smaller bureaucracy than many assume (around 25,000 people work for the European Commission – less than a fifth of the number who work for the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions…)
Of course, the pro-EU camp has precisely the same problem. “There’s a democratic deficit!”, they’re told. “The EU doesn’t listen to the people!”
There’s only one problem with this: based on the atrocious turn-out at pretty much every EU election ever (accompanied by a steady decline), the people have nothing to say.