Quentin Peel: End conspiracy of silence over Europe

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: February 10 2005

The starter's gun has fired and the great European referendum marathon has begun. In 10 days' time the voters of Spain will be the first in the European Union to cast their direct ballots for or against a new constitutional treaty.

There is not much doubt about the outcome. Popular opinion in Spain is overwhelmingly in favour of the treaty, even though the Spanish government failed to get all it wanted from the negotiations in terms of its voting weight among the 25 member states.

The campaign may be one-sided but the country has still been plastered with posters urging voters to turn out. Anyone who cared to buy a Sunday newspaper last weekend also got a free copy of the constitution. You can scarcely avoid the subject: it has been promoted by pop stars, distributed at football matches and debated by the participants in the Spanish television version of Big Brother.

The contrast to Britain could hardly be greater. Although British voters are consistently revealed to be among the most ignorant in Europe about all matters to do with the EU, including the constitutional treaty, attempts to provide them with better information have been almost non-existent.

According to the latest survey by Eurobarometer, only in Cyprus - a new EU member state - were more voters utterly ignorant about the constitution: 50 per cent had never heard of it in the UK, against 65 per cent in Cyprus. Another 44 per cent in Britain said they had heard of it but knew little about it, and just 6 per cent said they did know what it said.

There is a clear correlation between ignorance and opposition to the EU treaty. The only country in the union where opponents outnumbered supporters was the UK, with 20 per cent in favour and 30 per cent against. The EU average was 49 per cent in favour, and 16 per cent opposed.

There is a real possibility that the British will vote against the EU constitution, as much out of ignorance as hostility. It could very well be the only member state to do so. UK government officials still cling to the desperate hope that someone else will say No first - maybe the Poles or the Czechs, but best of all the French. It is possible but less than probable. More likely is being isolated 24:1.

Given the fury of the UK debate, ignorance about the EU constitution may seem surprising. The Danes and Swedes are far better informed. Yet Europe has become the poison in the British body politic, splitting parties, making both Labour and Conservatives unelectable in turn. Passion overwhelms facts. Worse, there is a conspiracy of silence between those backing the treaty and those against it.

The latter know that most British hostility rests on a vague sense that the EU is a threat to national sovereignty. They do not want to know that the treaty makes a clear distinction between national and EU competence and actually reinforces the powers of national parliaments. They talk blithely of a "European army" where none exists, and of a "European superstate" that bears no resemblance to the reality of a cumbersome union of nation states.

The trouble is that the UK government is also half-hearted about a proper information campaign. It does not want Europe to feature in the coming general election. It wants the treaty to be seen as a triumph for British "red lines" - for maintaining the national veto on questions of taxation, defence and foreign policy - while playing down the ways in which it does reinforce EU powers, such as those of the European parliament.

It is not just that Tony Blair is scared of losing the support of the pervasive eurosceptic press, headed by Rupert Murdoch's News International group. That is just part of the problem. The failure of the media to inform is more complex, as revealed by the recent independent inquiry into BBC reporting on Europe.

Both EU supporters and critics who gave evidence agreed the state broadcaster was failing to make the EU relevant and intelligible to its audience: there was a tendency to polarise issues and over-simplify. Mori, the pollster, concluded from a survey of viewers that there was a vicious circle of audience ignorance and lack of interest, causing the BBC to present its coverage largely through a "Westminster" prism of British politics in order to grab their attention.

The criticism can be applied to the entire British media. Too often they present the EU as a foreign battlefield in which UK ministers win victories or suffer defeats - as if it were a simple confrontation of left and right. The complexity of the process is ignored as too difficult to explain.

If the British are not going to vote in next year's referendum on the basis of chronic ignorance, they need to take a lesson from Ireland: to establish a National Forum in which all the pros and cons of the EU constitution can be rationally and publicly debated by all sides. It should travel the country as a public forum, televised and broadcast on radio, reported by the press, bringing in not only advocates and opponents of the constitution but more measured expert witnesses as well.

Such an exercise needs months to gather momentum. It cannot be left to the last few weeks. The challenge is to crack the conspiracy of silence. The No campaign may argue that any attempt to explain the EU constitution is by definition biased in its favour. The government may wish to spin the campaign according to its own propaganda. If they do, both sides would be demonstrating their disdain for a properly informed democratic process. The only winner would be ignorance itself.

quentin.peel@ft.com