Debating the EU

Having been involved in a number of debates on the EU in the past week (including an edition of Any Questions hosted by the School of Politics), I have been struck by a number of common threads, none of which bode too well for any coming debate.

Firstly, there remains a low level of knowledge, on all sides of the discussion. Sceptics typically do not have a sense of how the EU operates as a whole, or have a very selective reading of a particular ‘fact’. In particular, their knowledge is not well contextualised, with neither a sense of how figures match to other countries, nor of how ‘typical’ the UK is.

Pro-EU voices also suffer from the same problem, albeit in a different way. While they can communicate big picture ideas more clearly, they often lack specific knowledge to rebut challenges or they do not appreciate the diversity of euroscepticisms that exist: there is more to opposing the EU than UKIP.

This feeds into a second issue, namely one of mutual loathing. When I teach my students about negotiation, one of the key messages is ‘seperate the people from the problem’: rather than getting stuck into character assasinations, productive debate needs to focus on the matter in hand. Sceptics have at least learnt to hold their noses when getting together with ideological opponents, in order to make common cause, but I have struggled to see a meeting of minds between pros and antis, especially in more public settings. Neither side pretends to hold the other in much respect – sceptics are deluded, supporters are patsies – and the sinking to ad hominen attacks does nothing to help observers of such interactions develop a resolution.

Finally, the debates still have an aura of esoterica about them. Public interest remains low, as I have noted for a long time now, and is likely to remain so while debates have the feeling of counting angels on pins, rather than a clear connection to more pressing concerns, such as the economy or social provision.  The relatively small pool of commentators used by the media to drive such debates merely reinforces this impression, as more thoughtful and moderate voices are marginalised for those who will cause a stir.

In the context of a public debate about membership – pretty much regardless of whether there is a referendum or not – these things need to be addressed. All sides need to work to develop resources that a lay audience can understand, to approach debate in a spirit of constructive engagement and to connect the EU to other areas of public life.  Without these things, the UK will be doomed to continue its crab-wise shuffle through interacting with the EU, without ever finding a stable position.