Monday, 24 August 2009

Can the British be taught to love Europe?

Dominic Brett with the Commission’s London representation office alerted me today to a Eurobarometre study released in July that I hadn’t noticed – surveying the British public’s knowledge of and attitude toward the EU. As Brett notes in today’s E! Sharpweb special, they survey results go a long way in disproving the Eurosceptics’ long-standing denial that it is ignorance which makes the British public dislikes the EU rather than an actual reasoned and thought-out objection. It’s always nice when the raw numbers back up what can be clearly observed anecdotally.

The results, in which 83% of Britons surveyed said they knew “little or nothing” about the EU, were actually interpreted quite optimistically by Brett. He argues in his column today that even if the EU as a concept attracts such animosity in Britain, most of what it actually does meets public approval. He says getting the British public to be more positive toward the EU would just be a simple task of educating people on what it does. Considering that I recently learned that the British education system doesn’t teach pupils anything about the EU system which governs them, perhaps primary school would be the place to start such an outreach.

What I found to be the most interesting result of the survey was the fact that even though only 37% of survey respondents said they have a positive image of the EU, 48% said that the British media has a negative bias against it. Yet all the same, over half said that they didn’t want any more information about the EU. The results as a whole paint a picture of a population which (in this particular area) is aware of their own ignorance, aware of the reasons for their ignorance, and not interested in becoming ‘unignorant’. It’s a little strange!

The survey showed that plenty of misinformation about the EU abounds in Britain. When asked how much the UK contributes to the EU’s budget, the average said that it was 23% of Britain’s gross national income. It’s actually 0.2%. Yet only 6% of respondents said they believed it was under 3%. Just half of respondents knew about the European Health Insurance Card, and fewer than one in five were aware of the European Arrest Warrant, (which Brett points out enabled one of the bombers from the July 21 2005 attacks on London to be extradited from Italy). Yet most respondents said that these issues – terrorism, environment, trade, etc – were good areas for the EU to be involved in.

People’s approval of the EU had a direct correlation with their age and education, with younger and more formally educated people being more likely to have a positive impression of it. And the knowledge of the EU people reported, the more likely they were to approve of it.

People who claim that the British don’t approve of the EU because they don’t know anything about it are often derided as elitist or condescending, but survey after survey has shown this to be the case. With a media that seems to go out of its way to avoid talking about the EU except when conjuring up scare stories about the size of asparagus, it’s not a big surprise that the British don’t know much about it. That being said, I’m not sure I share Brett’s optimism that getting the British public interested in the EU is an easy - or even achievable - task.

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