Are the Brits Really That Desperate to Leave the EU?

27/11/2012 13:37 GMT | Updated 26/01/2013 10:12 GMT

With well over half the British population suggesting in a recent poll that they would vote to leave the European Union if given the opportunity, it's hardly surprising that eurosceptics across the political spectrum are jumping for joy. They claim that this is all the proof they need that a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU is not only necessary but also inevitable. Indeed, coming only days after the Commons had rebelled against the government to demand a cut, not just a freeze, to the EU budget, the referendum juggernaut and path to independence now seems unstoppable.

The popular mandate that these polls apparently bestow on a political position or ideology is no such thing. Of course they can be helpful in giving us an idea of what a group of people may or may not think about a particular issue at a specific time. But are those who are using these latest poll results honestly suggesting that a short question on membership is broad enough to make such grand pronouncements? I find this line of thought a worrying one.

On an issue as fiendishly complex as the UK's membership of the EU, I seriously doubt whether those who were asked the question really understand the full picture. This is not meant to be condescending or patronising; far from it in fact. The full picture can only be understood if you have been given the facts, the raw hard data and an unbiased view of what is actually going on. The sad truth is that in the UK, our knowledge of the EU is horrifyingly lacking. The result is that europhiles and eurosceptics alike are making claims that are either untrue or distortions of the truth.

Who, then, is to blame for this situation? The short answer is no one. The confluence of events that has led us to this point, where the UK's withdrawal from the EU is now being openly discussed, has not been pushed upon us by any one individual or group. There is clearly a widening gulf, both perceived and real, between those who run the EU and those that live in the EU. Attempts to buttress the European Parliament are doomed to failure if the institution itself is regarded as an unaccountable, over-spending frivolity.

However what is it about the UK that makes it so much more sceptic about the EU? Why are over half of people asked about independence so hostile? This isn't to suggest that I'm arguing for or against membership of the EU, but simply attempting to pick apart why the British public seem to be so much more resolutely against the EU than other member states. Before doing so, It's important to remember that a single headline percentage can be broken down into many more granular statistics. There are likely to be differences based on age group, profession, level of education and income.

More concerning is the basis on which the British have based their answers. The media, predominantly eurosceptic, rarely covers European affairs in any great depth, except when relevant to the intrigues of Westminster. The coverage on the EU budget in recent weeks is a good example of this. It was astonishing to see that even the BBC had adopted techniques more common to tabloids when it highlighted various building projects in Brussels, rather than more significant issues of CAP reform and cohesion funding. On both sides of the aisle, europhiles and eurosceptics cherry pick the information they need to justify their positions and then funnel their opinions through heavily biased mouthpieces. How are we to make informed decisions when we are fed such subjective material?

That's why, regardless of your position on the EU, we should be wary about taking poll statistics too seriously. The turmoil engulfing the eurozone, the politial transformations taking place and the battles between so many different interest groups mean opinions will change on a day to day basis. We need a real debate based on fact. These questions give an impression of the world as black and white, when in reality there are many shades in between.

This is why we should take poll results with a pinch of salt and avoid letting a single percentage determine the trajectory of such an important discussion.