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British 'Ignorance' About The EU Is Nothing New - The Trouble Is, We Don't Even Realise It

04/05/2017 15:51
Alexandra Thompson via Getty Images

Another week, another story about more Brexit bickering. This time, the British government has been accused by Brussels of 'ignorance' over how the EU works. Sources claim that Britain's lack of awareness about key issues is threatening to derail talks when they have barely even begun.

In today's rumour-driven political landscape, the chances of these claims being the 'gossip' the Prime Minister says they are, is high.

Nonetheless, I think it would be hard to argue that there isn't some truth in the fact that Britain's willingness to take an interest in both the complexity and significance of EU decision making is woefully lacking.

Having first entered the journalism industry at the height of Brexit mania, I think of myself as reasonably politically savvy. Between keeping up with the different UK newspapers and watching the main broadcast news programmes, I like to think that I am generally well equipped to have an informed conversation about politics and current affairs.

Or so I thought at the start of the year. I arrived for my five month traineeship at the European Parliament in March with what I can now only describe as an embarrassing ignorance about EU affairs.

Sitting in welcome meetings with the other trainees selected by the Parliament for my intake, I was struck by how well informed my colleagues were about the structure of the EU institutions and their history, in comparison to me. Speaking to a few fellow Brits in the group, however, I also got the impression that I was not alone. So here is a sweeping statement- as a nation, our understanding of how Europe works is, to say the least, pretty sketchy.

The overall voting turnout across Europe for the most recent EU election in 2014 was a modest 42%, but that number varied significantly between countries. Although by no means the worst of the group, Britain's 35 % voter turnout was well below other major countries like Germany (47%), France (42.43%), Sweden (51%) and Italy (57.2%).

People often say that British people don't care about Europe and the EU in the way that those 'on the continent' do. While that may be the case (and there are many reasons behind it), I would argue that a lack of understanding about what the EU actually does is more to blame for our apparent ambivalence. After all, why would you bother to vote for an MEP, if you don't know what their job is?

Famously after the Brexit vote, Remain voters (or as the Daily Mail likes to call them, Remoaners) reacted with dismay at the spike in people googling 'What is the EU?' after polls had closed. A sign, we all said, of the clear ignorance of the Brexit brigade.

But how many of those who voted remain can truly claim to understand exactly how the EU operates?

On a visit back to London this weekend, I asked friends and family (most of them remain voters) whether they understood what role each EU institution plays. Not one person could confidently tell me that they knew the function of the European Parliament, where I currently work, or understood that it was the Commission (and not the Council) which actually draws up the legislation.

Several people asked me to explain what Nigel Farage is still doing hanging around the EU when he is no longer a member of UKIP (the answer, of course, is that he is an elected MEP for South East England, and the Chair of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group.)

What is the difference between the job roles of Juncker and Tusk? Ask a British person- be they a waitress, a doctor or a banker- and I would be willing to bet that most would struggle to answer comprehensively. And I include myself (at least until very recently), in that grouping.

When you really think about it, this is astonishing given how much information about the EU we probably all feel that we have been fed over the past few months. I think most people in the UK could reel off that infamous 350 million pounds a week figure that we supposedly should be getting back once we leave, but how many people could give you a breakdown of what the EU funds, or tell you what was decided in the last plenary session?

It would be wrong to suggest that none of this is the fault of the EU itself. Its failure to engage its own citizen and convince them that taxpayers' money is going towards something beneficial has played a key role in the surge of Euroscepticism that is sweeping Europe, not just the UK.

Nonetheless, as my own EU 'education' coincides with Britain's exit, the more I am starting to see just how ignorant British politicians (and also the media), have allowed us to be. Given the scope of legislation, funding and projects that are devised, allocated and carried out from Brussels, it is surely imperative that EU citizens have a basic knowledge- and interest- in what is happening there.

In the same way that every spat that happens in PMQs is splashed across the media and discussed endlessly by politicians, so too should we cover and scrutinise EU politics in a way that leaves the public informed.

Admittedly, many would argue that it's probably a little late for that. To some extent I would agree. But as Britain enters the next two years of negotiations with all eyes on us, I hope that Ms May and her team take note that 'ignorance' is a dangerous thing if you want the upper hand.

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