Do you know how the EU works?

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Democracy in all its forms is delightful. One flick through the news channels is enough to see that millions are still denied the right to vote because of strife, repression or fear.

But democracy relies on the electorate making as informed a choice as possible. If knowledge is power, then I worry that all political parties have missed a beat with Europe.

The May 2014 EU elections were entirely about Britain’s place in, place out, or the right to choose either or on EU membership. The debate still rages and will continue to do so until – as Prime Minister David Cameron has promised the electorate – a re-elected Conservative government holds a yes-no referendum on British EU membership by 2017.

Yet no political party has launched an information drive on what exactly the European Union does, how it operates and why they like or dislike these activities.

The neglect has allowed parties like Ukip an easier time making the case for immediate withdrawal (the party gaining a record 27.5 percent share of the vote and 24 MEPs). At  home, Scotland returned its first ever UKIP MEP with David Coburn (with more than 10 percent of the vote in Scotland), much to the genuine disbelief of the SNP Scottish Government.

Now, of course there are jokes to be made that the European Union is so complex it defies a mere press release or three page summary. The organisation is a unique behemoth and its politics are difficult to understand without guidance. The problem is compounded by British news outlets being more concerned with North American politics than the continent next door.

But in order to stem anti-EU feelings political Europhiles must first acknowledge that ignorance of any political issue leads to two attitudes regularly found in the British public.

The first admits that just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not important. Thus, the status quo should prevail. The second says that overwhelming institutional or political complexity  is probably detrimental, even if you’re not entirely sure how. Walk away.

The ‘safe bet’ versus the ‘retreat’ are honest, gut instinct reactions brought about in people who don’t have all the facts. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes might have been on to something when he said that: “No man knows distinctly anything, And no man ever will.”

By contrast, what all sides in the Scottish independence debate have done correctly is to produce detailed analyses of the benefits and downsides of their respective viewpoints. Although seldom impartial, when pulled together they at least inform and advise to paint a picture of the institutions and parties involved.

So when we’re reflecting on these elections, it is important to acknowledge that the EU is something that is entirely lost on most people, except those with a personal or professional interest in it. And when we struggle to explain the rise of UKip, or fail to understand why Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg ‘doesn’t get it,’ we must remember that the rhetoric from all parties has not been matched by an information drive to explain the organs and operations of the European Union.

The ‘better off out argument’ is in danger of becoming the most natural foothold for many when facing the completely unknown, seemingly unscalable, rock face of complexity that is the EU.

Overall voter turnout across Europe has been declining for years (61.99 percent in 1979; 42.54 percent at the 2014 EU elections). While we can take some solace that far-right parties across Europe, like Holland’s Dutch Freedom Party or France’s Front National, are not one unified bloc, Ukip has, much like the SNP, a singular nationalist objective which seem’s to have captured the public’s mood.

How much of its success can be attributed to the twin attitudes described above is debatable. But their historic victory, and the nearly 2 percent increase in UK voter turnout compared to 2009, warns us that parties must go beyond explaining how much Britain gains fiscally to discussing how the EU operates daily.

It would be fascinating to observe how the polls would change if party literature shifted from ‘benefits’ and ‘downsides’ to ‘How to understand the EU according to…’

Time will tell.

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About Alastair Stewart 208 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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