The EU referendum, EU knowledge and voting in the dark

Dr. Christopher Huggins 
Teaching Fellow in European Politics – SPIRE

David Cameron has returned from Brussels with his renegotiated deal for the UK’s relationship with the EU, and we, the Great British public, have now been told it is up to us to make the decision to remain in the EU or to leave. This sounds like a virtuous exercise in direct democracy. However, voters in this referendum will be faced with a significant problem: many will be voting in the dark.

The Eurobarometer survey, an opinion poll conducted by the EU, highlights the problem. Only 50% of UK respondents agree they understand how the EU works. This question, of course, is subjective – people might think they know how the EU works, but they might actually not. So to gain a more ‘objective’ measure of EU knowledge the Eurobarometer survey poses a number of extremely basic true or false statements. The responses here show significant proportions did not know MEPs were directly elected (39%), did not know the EU has 28 member states (47%) and were unaware Switzerland was not a member (41%).

The fact remains that the EU’s institutional structure and policy process is notoriously complex, and very few really understand what the individual institutions (the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, the European Council and the rest) actually do. This lack of EU knowledge is not unique to the UK, and the Eurobarometer survey reveals it is a trend across the EU (albeit to different degrees). In academic circles we often refer to this as the ‘knowledge deficit’.

The institutional complexity of the EU is something a group of 75 second year Politics and International Relations students at Keele undertaking the “Politics of the European Union” module are currently trying to grapple with. However, there are around 45 million registered voters in the UK, and the overwhelming majority will not have had the benefit of an undergraduate course on the EU.

So where can the average voter turn to make sense of this complexity? One obvious source would be the political figureheads who have recently begun to actively campaign to ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ (Cameron, May, Farage, Johnson, Gove, Duncan Smith and so on). Unfortunately political leaders on both sides of the debate are simply not trusted by the public. A recent YouGov poll showed that for all the major personalities involved, their statements on whether the UK should remain or leave were more likely to be distrusted than trusted. The messages put out by the campaigns themselves are, of course, designed to win voters over to their side, rather than present the objective facts (if there is such a thing). And public trust in the media, another potential source of information, is similarly low.

There is of course a significant debate to be had about how the public should acquire political knowledge of the EU, or indeed any other political system they’re affected by. Is it the EU’s responsibility? Should our national government be doing more to explain the EU to us? Or should it be the responsibility of individual citizens, especially if they can’t trust our politicians and media?

For the immediate future, however, this knowledge deficit has profound implications for the referendum in June. The responsibility for staying in or getting out of the EU has been passed to the public, but a great many will be making a significant decision about the future of this country without access to the information necessary to make an informed choice.

If you are looking for more information, here are a couple of useful and accessible sources:
European Commission. (2014). How the European Union Works: Your Guide to the EU Institutions. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Available for free at http://dx.doi.org/10.2775/11255
This is a short introductory guide produced by the EU itself – it’s compulsory reading for students on my EU module.
Pinder, J., & Usherwood, S. (2013). The European Union: A Very Short Introduction (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Available in most high street bookshops.
This is a slightly more detailed guide to the EU, but nevertheless very accessible.

 

If anyone would like guidance on where to find further sources about the EU, please comment below and we will put you in touch with Chris.

 

Dr. Christopher Huggins is a Teaching Fellow in European Politics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment at Keele University. His research focuses on the Europeanization of sub-national government and local authorities that actively engage with the European Union, often bypassing their national governments. He currently teaches a wide range of modules on the EU and European politics. More on Chris’s research and teaching can be found here.

 

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