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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The state of EU debate

In the comments to yesterday’s post, pro-EU blogger Evil European notes that

In the UK media, debates on Europe and the European Union have not moved on in over 30 years

Our deal eurosceptic blogging friend Richard North of EU Referendum was saying similar things the other day, but about the online debate:

“How many active blogs are there, dedicated to fighting the intellectual case for euroscepticism? Come to think of it, how many think-tanks are there, dedicated to exploring the case for leaving the European Union? Where at all is that intellectual case being argued?”

To be fair, he’s been saying this on and off for the last few years. The only trouble is, the majority of the online anti-EU lot rarely go for reasoned debate – my experience tends more towards being called a traitor or accused of being in the pay of the Commission by the eurosceptics who turn up here (at least, by those who aren’t previously aware of me). Even the more intelligent anti-EU bloggers – the likes of Devil’s Kitchen, Tim Worstall, Elaib Harvey (all current or former fully paid-up members of UKIP) – have a tendency to play to the gallery with quick witty put-downs more often than they do provide detailed critiques. Richard North likewise seems to enjoy pandering to his audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, which – judging by EU Referendum’s very active message boards – often tend very much towards the lunatic fringe.

Having said that, us few pro-EU bloggers have hardly done a great job of proving the benefits of EU membership over the years. This is partly due to the utter impossibility of proving the economic case thanks to the complete lack of verifiable figures – but also because we spend most of our time trying to counter misinformation and misconceptions, mostly deliberately spread about by eurosceptics. But it’s also because a lot of the self-appointed defenders of the EU I’ve spotted around the net seem to be overly idealistic, decidedly naive, and often completely unencumbered by any detailed knowledge of the issues involved. Online, many of them tend to be students – decidedly younger than the mostly middle-aged anti-EU brigade – and lacking in both real-world experience and debating prowess.

As I say, this is sadly nothing new. Back in January 2005 (following a previous bit of pondering by me the previous month), North wrote the following:

The cause of Euroscepticism is not best served by this ranting as it presents us with the added difficulty of having to overcome the “loony-fringe” label before we are even able to get the message across.

Which all sounds decidedly reminiscent of eurosceptic complaints following the “Referendum Rally” back in the autumn:

oh, my dear. The crowds, the people… the fucking idiots… If we get on TV – and there was sod all worth broadcasting, more’s the pity – you can bet they’ll be in the front of the shot. There was a conspiracy theory group waving the biggest banners of the lot and handing out a professionally-produced anti-EU ‘newspaper’ which, going by its hysterical and, shall we say, idiosyncratic take on all things political, was produced on Planet Fayed. They’re all in it , you know. All the party leaders, including Cameron, are Marxists. To a man. And woman, if she’s a fast-track senior police officer. Redwood [ I am not making this up… they are ] is the Euro-bastards’ chief spokeman. All Brussels goons put in positions of power… to destroy us. Utterly, utterly barking.

The pro-EU camp may not have anything quite this bad – but every time the likes of ex-Europe Minister Dennis MacShane get up to defend the Union, I weep a silent tear. Every time the likes of the dishonest, reviled Peter Mandelson or repeatedly rejected Neil Kinnock is picked to be the UK’s EU man in Brussels, I despair. (Current suggestions of Tony Blair for EU president and the abysmal Patricia Hewitt as the next UK Commissioner almost start to make me a conspiracy theorist, so ideally suited to they seem to make the people of Britain hate the EU even more.)

Three years ago, I wrote the following, and it sadly still stands:

Neither side of the EU debate are happy. It seems as though none of those purporting to speak for either the anti or the pro camps are particularly in tune with what the people they claim to represent actually think.

This is largely because there simply haven’t been many (any?) places where reliable information about the EU can be easily found, or where EU politics can be discussed rationally and calmly. The few dedicated EU news sites all have backers with an agenda, either financial or political (EurActiv receives funding from the European Commission, for example, while EU Observer is run by the wife of leading Danish eurosceptic MEP Jens-Peter Bonde). Try going on to EU Referendum’s message boards and arguing the pro-EU case, or saying anything positive in response to a post at Commissioner Wallstrom’s blog. Try doing a Google search for “EU debate”, and I come top of the list – a wonderful indication of the paucity of discussion out there. The BBC has recently been blasted for it’s appalling lack of coverage of EU affairs and, as I noted the other day, with lack of information comes lack of interest and lack of participation. This in turn, as I’ve discussed before, spells the death of democracy.

This is all a problem that is thankfully increasingly becoming recognised, though not yet acted on quickly enough. The European Commission’s most recent addition to the world of online EU debate – the Debate Europe forum – is looking vaguely promising. Yet already there arises the danger of it being swamped by the lunatic fringe, with post topics like Muslim invaders beginning to appear.

Because the trouble is – and as I’m sure I’ve argued before – the EU is so damned boring that it’s really only the obsessives and nutters who can be bothered to talk about it. When it comes to the web, the more dedicated members of any forum come to dominate and shape that forum in their own image – “newbies” and less regular participants quickly feel daunted by the cliquishness and get scared off, compounding the problem. For any meaningful dialogue and debate to kick off about EU issues – online or elsewhere – this problem has to be overcome. Because in the media as well, it is often to the extremes that journalists hunting for a quote turn.

The question is, how to do it without simply banning the lunatic fringe from taking part? It’s something we’d all – from all sides – no doubt love to do, but we all know it wouldn’t really be a solution. After all, it’d just mean we’re all part of the conspiracy…

I guess what I’m hoping for is some neutral middle-ground. Somewhere untainted by association either with the anti-EU extremes or the EU itself, where opposing opinions can be criticised in restrained, respectful tones, not hysterical hyperbole. Is this possible – or is it just as much of a pipedream as a fully-functional EUtopia?

15 Comments

  1. Great post!

    I think that the lack of media coverage of the EU is understandable, given the lack of interest. Now, it is possible that if there would be more coverage, more people would care. I think this is were EU blogs can come in. At the current stage the readership of EU topic blogs is minuscule. However, maybe over time we can attract more interest.

  2. Man, my spelling sucks! it should be “where EU blogs can come in”, and I guess there are even more mistakes.

  3. Mark Mardell (BBC Europe Editor), responded to the criticisms of the BBC’s (lack of) coverage of the EU on today’s Feedback on Radio 4 (it was the first item). I wasn’t paying an awful lot of attention, but one of the things he did say was that he agreed that there isn’t enough coverage.

  4. At the risk of being accused of a witty put-down: any system of law which states that it’s legal to add the leaves of the apple geranium to quince jam but makes it a criminal offence punishable by a 6 month jail sentence and or a £5,000 fine to add the same to either plum jam or gooseberry jam is clearly insane and needs to be dismantled forthwith.

    Membership of the EU means that we have tens of thousands of pages of idiocy like this.

  5. By the way, you link to Prodius’s description of the pro-Referendum rally. In this post he seems like a very reasonable guy. But I recommend to look at his blog. For example in this post he superimposes the EU flag with a swastica and the letters EUCCP. At the top of his blog in the right column he alleges that Global Warming is a conspiracy by the scientific community.

    If this is the face of “reasonable” discourse about the EU then I have never met anybody unreasonable.

  6. I reckon you’re a bit harsh on the BBC – or perhaps my view is twisted. Since Mark Mardell became EU correspondent things have improved as far as I can tell, particularly on the BBC’s website. There is more about issues of importance – the EU’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from cars for example – and less simple for-and-against-the-EU stuff. I remain much more concerned by the printed press in the UK though.

    Generally agree with the post though – I do feel there are a number of people who are OK with the existence of the EU, but are critical of its procedures. Problem is getting those people talking to each other, and trying to be constructive in some way.

  7. I agree with you re coverage. The Grauniad seems to have abandoned Europe completely but provides blow-by-blow coverage of anything from the US. (Not an anti-American whine but a plea for a bit of perspective.)

    Mike

  8. @Tim Worstall: You should try finding out about a VAT rate tribunal from 1991 concerning Jaffa Cakes, which had nothing to do with the EU but rather the way British VAT law distinguishes between chocolate-covered biscuits, other kinds of biscuit, and cakes (including chocolate-covered cakes). Alternatively, look at the riders on almost anything passed by the US Congress. Lots of lobbyists pulling from different directions will create crazy laws in any system.

    Back on topic, I think there’s a general problem with political commentary on the web: most of it is rubbish, and the rubbish seems to range between purple-faced partisan ranting and vacuous pseudo-intellectual snark, often with elements of both. I think this is just part of the nature of blogging. There are good political blogs out there, but they will always be in a minority, because there’s just too much temptation to let yourself get hooked on being ‘witty’ or to charge into a tribalistic vendetta, either of which will attract a certain kind of readership in large numbers who will then heap praise on your ‘bold’ new direction. Boring objectivity and rationality take far more discipline and don’t make you overtly popular.

  9. “nothing to do with the EU”
    Nope. Got to have VAT if you want to be in the EU.

    Now, to the heart of the matter. Yes, tax laws are very complicated. They get thrashed out as you say in VAT tribunals and law courts (that one went all the way to the Lords as I recall). That is, to my mind, the correct way of dealing with such matters. Food isn’t Vatted, luxury food is. We’ll leave the working out of what is food and what is luxury food to the courts.

    EU regulation, as with the apple geranium leaves, doesn’t work that way. We’ve got pages and pages defining what is jam, what is jelly, what is extra jam, what is extra jelly, what is marmalade and what is a sweet chestnut puree (for direct human consumption only). And that’s just one regulation. To the very point of ridiculousness that I mention, that it’s legal to put geraniums into quince jam but not plum.

    And again, EU law tries to provide this level of detail, in the *criminal* legal system, in the laws they pass.

    Vastly easier, more sensible, more flexible, better able to deal with innovation, to do as we used to. Goods must be fit for purpose and of merchantable quality. And let the courts decide what those mean. Better to have a judge say that well, the addition of apple geranium leaves to plum jam doesn’t in fact distract from its essential jamness now, does it, than have the entire European Commission, the Council of Ministers, the legislatures of 27 nations and innumerable devolved and subsidiary ones labour to bring forth the law that states it does.

    My real complaint is about the stupidity of trying to write regulations detailing the allowable contents of every product in a massive and constantly changing economy. We simply don’t need that level of mind boggling bureaucratic stupidity. But as our Continental cousins are indeed addicted to that sort of insanity (in part it’s the Roman Law, or Napoleonic Code, mindset) thus we must leave.

  10. I question whether in the current circumstances a debate is possible. There’s no way that well-informed concerned citizens are going to waste their time posting online or travelling to attend some face-to-face meeting to discuss the EU issues which affect their society when it’s guaranteed that the forum will be hijacked by raving nutters or the shockingly ill-informed or intellectually dishonest.

    And on the other topic, as a wise man once said (in fact it was me): he would accord the Jaffa cake a biscuit disregards the fiscal ramifications of that particular gastroontological determination!

  11. I do not see how there can be a neutral debating ground about the EU when we are not allowed a choice in the matter of either our membership or further integration.

    In reality it is not a neutral subject; those of us who do not want further integration or want to leave the EU altogether feel our political leaders are taking the country in entirely the wrong direction, against the will of the people. Thus we do not want to quietly debate the pros and cons of certain EU policy that would be only playing into the hands of the federalists. What is the point of holding a nice little chat about something which is seen by many as damaging to our country and destroying our democracy. That would be akin to deciding where to place the deckchairs on the Titanic when the ship was already sinking.

    It should be remembered that the pro EU camp do not have to convince anyone of the benefits of the EU, as the integration wagon just keeps rolling on regardless of public opinion. So you do not have to try to win the argument, which is probably just as well because in my experience that the pro camp have singularly failed to do on any level.

  12. RZ – one of the arguments in the UK is that the BBC should provide more EU coverage as part of its public service remit. But then we’d almost certainly just have even more accusations of the BBC being a pro-EU propaganda tool…

    Jono – I missed that, but he followed it up on his blog. Anyone with any media experience whatsoever will recognise and sympathise with what he’s talking about. There simply isn’t time to cover dull news in detail – and EU news is considered dull, even when it involves financial scandals. This shouldn’t be the case, but sadly it is.

    Tim – naturally that’s a silly-sounding law. But a) as Colin points out, every system has similar silly laws, and b) it raises a handy point where there could be some constructive dialogue between the pro- and anti-EU camps. Because I agree it sounds silly, and I’d be tempted (from a position of complete ignorance about the jam trade) to say that it’s unnecessary to have pan-European regulation about such a thing. So this is where pro- and anti-EU types can sit down and identify wasteful regulations to be dropped (something the Barroso Commission has repeatedly said it’s keen to do) – in the process making the EU less offensive to the anti-EU types.

    But, of course, as long as you’re fixed on the dogmatic “scrap the EU in its entirety” thing, there’s no hope. I see bad regulations and think “let’s fix them”, you see bad regulations and think “right, the whole thing’s rubbish”. Pan-European regulation and consistency in product standards is immensely useful in building a strong, stable pan-European market – and creating a strong market with one’s near neighbours is by far the most cost-efficient, especially with the rising price of oil. The question is how best to achieve this – that’s what needs to be debated, and as the EU is what we’ve currently got, it makes a logical starting point for discussion. Even you surely can’t think that EVERYTHING the EU does is detrimental?

    Colin – Your take on political blogging is pretty much spot on, I’d say. The pursuit of popularity is one of the biggest problems – because only trash (and, online, terrorism) sells. For the two months after covering the 7/7 attacks, when I was focussing a lot on terrorism, I was getting ten times the readership I get now. My most popular posts have mostly been jokey, ill-researched ones. Because in-depth analysis has a very limited audience – hence tabloids far outselling broadsheets…

    Martin – indeed. Even ignoring the nutters, among the anti-EU blogs there’s a disproportionate number of withdrawalists, who are not representative of eurosceptics as a whole. This can only be helping to further polarise the online debate.

    Ken – such is democracy. Like it or not, anti-EU withdrawalists are in a minority. Yes, there may be a case that a decent number of people want a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but poll after poll shows a majority of the UK population still favour membership. Simply using emotional language and assuming that a majority agree with you because the majority of people on the anti-EU blogs do doesn’t make it the case.

    This is why I’d like to see a more neutral, civilised, respectful forum for EU debate, where anti-EU types can go without being accused of being xenophobes and little Englanders, and pro-EU types can go without being accused of being Commission sock puppets or rabid federalists pushing for a United States of Europe. It would in turn hopefully enable everyone – from both sides – to get a far better idea of just what the situation really is, and just what it is that their opponents really want.

    Hopefully it would also encourage a toning down of the emotional outbursts that makes any anti-EU arguments so hard to take seriously (and that were the primary spark that made me rethink my position and become pro-EU). If you believe the EU is a bad thing, then anger is understandable – but angry outbursts really don’t help the anti-EU cause, they just make it look like its followers are petulant children. Every time someone like Kilroy or that chap who dresses up like John Bull at all the anti-EU protests appears on the telly, the anti-EU brigade lose more supporters, I’m sure of it. The same goes for every time someone does a Google search for some information on the EU and finds page after page of eurosceptic ranting. A measured, restrained approach will win far more converts – because the measured, restrained eurosceptic arguments are often fairly valid.

  13. It is very difficult to conduct a reasonable debate on such a contentious subject, we really do understand our arguments are valid, but those arguments are swamped by a great deal of disinformation.

    “Such is democracy” is rather a claim too far in my opinion, poll after poll shows that the majority do not want further integration into the project, – poll after poll indicates that the majority do not want to ratify the Reform/Lisbon Treaty – poll after poll indicates that the British people want less interference from the EU. The only reason why there might be a slight majority for remaining within the EU is because away from EUscpetic web sites there is virtually no debate about alternatives for the country. But polling is all we have to go on, because the political class will make damn sure that we do not get any chance to have a real vote on the subject.

    Most reasonable pro debaters acknowledge the EU needs to be reformed, where we EUscepetics part company is that we do not see reform as being on the cards. The Constitution came about as an attempt to rectify the problems of accountability democracy and openness in the EU system as per the Laken agreement, but that was hijacked by the federalists, who produced the Constitution, which did not address the Laken demands, instead they produced a blueprint for further integration and further powers to be stripped from the member states. We now have the Reform treaty which was decided in secret and does everything the Constitution would have, of course, on that we will not be allowed a referendum for the simple reason that it would be rejected. Democracy i.e. based on the choice of the people does not seem to have much place in the process.

  14. Perhaps something can be learnt from the Harvard Center for European Studies.

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