From Dublin, with confusion

In one of the more random events that suggests I still haven’t ‘got’ the internet, yesterday a thread I wrote went big:

Rather than rehash the points made there, I want to discuss two related aspects, one substantive and one more media-y.

The EU as a vector of international commitments

The substantive aspect is that the Dublin Regulation isn’t that unusual, in the sense that it’s about the EU-level management of international rules.

Asylum and refugee commitments date back to the immediate post-war period, when such things had considerably more urgency and moral weight. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention (and protocol) sets out the basic framework that exists to this day, but it’s just that – basic.

However, you’ll note that the first Dublin Regulation only pops up in 1990, so it wasn’t automatically an EEC/EC/EU thing. Instead the end of the Cold War, very large population movements across and the German need to recast its asylum provision without the obvious moral blockages involved meant that the europeanisation of policy was a logical way to go.

And Dublin at least gave a fig-leaf to those who decried the poor management of asylum across the member states, by setting out more detailed rules on who did what.

(I write ‘fig-leaf’ because there remain many issues with the whole policy area, even after repeated reforms: try this for a discussion.)

But the general point still applies: Dublin is a local elaboration of international commitments. The end of the transition period will bring Dublin to an end in the UK, but it won’t change those commitments.

In a way, this simple point highlights one reason why the EU gets it in the neck from critics. By doing things for member states that they’d be doing anyway – hopefully, but not always, more efficiently and effectively – it makes it easier to rail against the obligations that ensue.

‘Brussels made us do it’ was always a disingenuous argument, given that we typically made Brussels do it to us, and that ‘Brussels’ also included our representatives in the decisions. But if politics were fair, then lots of things would be different and I’d probably have stuck with my plan to study fluvial morphology (because stream tables kick serious arse).

The takeaway from this is that Brexit might liberate the UK from EU management of issues, but not from the wider international environment of treaties, conventions and the rest. Sure, those come with much milder enforcement mechanisms, but also with much less scope for British influencing of change and implementation.

Helping the media make sense of it

The circumstances of the thread, alluded to in the first tweet, deserve some unpacking.

I was contacted about 30 minutes before the slot, to see if I could talk through Dublin. I agreed and waited for the call-back. This came on time, but with an apology from the production team that they were pulling it, as the presenter felt unsure about working through the details during the slot.

This is unusual, in my experience, but I also recognise this is part of the presenter’s prerogative: if they’re not confident they can ask the right kind of questions in a way that works for them and their audience, then that’s their call. Hence why I’m not calling them out or naming them, even though I’m pretty sure we’d have made it work.

But it raises a question about whether complexity should be a barrier to discussion, in the sense that if the media think something is too complicated then should that stop them trying to discuss it.

The answer to that is obviously “no”, otherwise we’d never discuss anything. Because everything is complicated, at some level.

In this particular case, I feel I could have given simple answers to the questions I might have been asked, but if we’d not been on such a short timescale, then I’d have walked the production person through it first, so they could see a way to do it (that happens a lot for such subjects, especially with the bigger media outlets who have more people to hand in production).

And that’s why I wrote the thread: to show that it can be explained in easy-to-understand terms.

A lot of the media and engagement work I (and others) do is like this – demystifying topics and giving people a helping hand to get into the detail. I’d argue it’s a central of any academic’s work to do this; letting others see patterns and processes that might otherwise pass them by, so we can all benefit from a more informed position.

It would be easy to grumble about ‘the media’ with a case like this, but my experience to date has been that the vast majority of journalists and broadcasters are trying to do a good job. Maybe by trying to make our work more accessible, we can help them do a better job yet.