A few years ago, the European Commission’s London office felt compelled to publish an A to Z of euro myths. There was an entry on eurocrats and an attempt to explain the EU’s reputation for being tyrannical about small fruit. The blog also reassured the people of Britain that the EU would protect their Cornish pasties from American invasion.
It was all done in good humour but the blog addressed a serious problem. All across the member states, the quality of information about what the EU is and does is abysmal. The European integration project has been an incremental and unspectacular process – the EU admits as much.
And sure enough, it has been greeted with indifference. Data on British attitudes towards the EU shows very low levels of trust and enthusiasm. Now the British public have voted with their feet and decided to leave the union.
British citizens generally think the EU has not benefited the country, and data on attitudes across the union since the financial crisis shows that negative attitudes towards it have stabilised at higher levels.
In the spring of 2013 only 30% of citizens had a positive image of the EU – down from 52% in 2007. The number of those having a total negative almost doubled, from 15% in 2007 to 29%. The perception was that the voices of citizens did not count in the EU (67%). Euroscepticism, as a form of opposition to the EU integration process, has now become embedded, pervasive and enduring.
In 2008, when the economic crisis hit, only 44% of UK citizens said they were interested in EU affairs, with 58% showing more interest in their country’s national politics.
Without a strong message coming from the EU, bad feeling has spread. Euroscepticism thrives when a lack of knowledge combines with an inaccurate counter-narrative at the national level. Already questions are being asked about whether European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did enough to convince the UK to stay in the EU.
According to a Centre for European Reform study, one of the most repeated claims made about the EU is that Brussels, namely, the European Commission, dictated 75% of British laws. In reality, the percentage of secondary legislation resulting from EU requirements is actually about 10-13%. Most of that relates to business regulation, VAT and excise duties.
As the British referendum has shown, the EU is seen as a dictatorship on a mission to destroy its own members. Britain, meanwhile, is the picture of democracy. Instead of that horrid EU rag with its nasty stars, Britain has its union flag. Instead of unelected bureaucrats, it has its legitimate system of MPs. Never mind the monarchy and the House of Lords.
It’s a similar story in other members states. Before Poland joined, the populist party Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland spread conspiracy theories about “EU elites” so effectively that some genuinely thought Poland would be destroyed by the EU.
This kind of misinterpretation of the EU evidently needs to be urgently addressed, before other countries follow the UK out. Eurosceptics have wasted no time in calling for their own referendums on membership.
Indeed referendums are far more common outside the UK – which should provide an opportunity to debate the issues and raise concerns. And yet their binary nature exacerbates anti-establishment bitterness and fear, so it’s all too easy to miss the opportunity to deal with people’s concerns.
It was certainly missed in the UK’s case. The campaign focused obsessively on immigration and the movement of people, with alarmist reports on the number of EU migrants coming to the UK and the costs they burden on Britain. This was punctuated only occasionally with ill-informed arguments about Turkey joining the EU and plans to create a European army.
This vote is clearly being taken as a wake up call by EU leaders. Now that a member has been lost, they really need to put the evidence into action. It’s clear that trust and enthusiasm for the European project has been sliding. They must address misinformation in member states that plays a part in this lack of enthusiasm so that the EU can be framed in a different, or at least neutral, way.