Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The state of EU debate

In the comments to yesterday’s post, pro-EU blogger Evil European notes that

In the UK media, debates on Europe and the European Union have not moved on in over 30 years

Our deal eurosceptic blogging friend Richard North of EU Referendum was saying similar things the other day, but about the online debate:

“How many active blogs are there, dedicated to fighting the intellectual case for euroscepticism? Come to think of it, how many think-tanks are there, dedicated to exploring the case for leaving the European Union? Where at all is that intellectual case being argued?”

To be fair, he’s been saying this on and off for the last few years. The only trouble is, the majority of the online anti-EU lot rarely go for reasoned debate – my experience tends more towards being called a traitor or accused of being in the pay of the Commission by the eurosceptics who turn up here (at least, by those who aren’t previously aware of me). Even the more intelligent anti-EU bloggers – the likes of Devil’s Kitchen, Tim Worstall, Elaib Harvey (all current or former fully paid-up members of UKIP) – have a tendency to play to the gallery with quick witty put-downs more often than they do provide detailed critiques. Richard North likewise seems to enjoy pandering to his audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, which – judging by EU Referendum’s very active message boards – often tend very much towards the lunatic fringe.

Having said that, us few pro-EU bloggers have hardly done a great job of proving the benefits of EU membership over the years. This is partly due to the utter impossibility of proving the economic case thanks to the complete lack of verifiable figures – but also because we spend most of our time trying to counter misinformation and misconceptions, mostly deliberately spread about by eurosceptics. But it’s also because a lot of the self-appointed defenders of the EU I’ve spotted around the net seem to be overly idealistic, decidedly naive, and often completely unencumbered by any detailed knowledge of the issues involved. Online, many of them tend to be students – decidedly younger than the mostly middle-aged anti-EU brigade – and lacking in both real-world experience and debating prowess.

As I say, this is sadly nothing new. Back in January 2005 (following a previous bit of pondering by me the previous month), North wrote the following:

The cause of Euroscepticism is not best served by this ranting as it presents us with the added difficulty of having to overcome the “loony-fringe” label before we are even able to get the message across.

Which all sounds decidedly reminiscent of eurosceptic complaints following the “Referendum Rally” back in the autumn:

oh, my dear. The crowds, the people… the fucking idiots… If we get on TV – and there was sod all worth broadcasting, more’s the pity – you can bet they’ll be in the front of the shot. There was a conspiracy theory group waving the biggest banners of the lot and handing out a professionally-produced anti-EU ‘newspaper’ which, going by its hysterical and, shall we say, idiosyncratic take on all things political, was produced on Planet Fayed. They’re all in it , you know. All the party leaders, including Cameron, are Marxists. To a man. And woman, if she’s a fast-track senior police officer. Redwood [ I am not making this up… they are ] is the Euro-bastards’ chief spokeman. All Brussels goons put in positions of power… to destroy us. Utterly, utterly barking.

The pro-EU camp may not have anything quite this bad – but every time the likes of ex-Europe Minister Dennis MacShane get up to defend the Union, I weep a silent tear. Every time the likes of the dishonest, reviled Peter Mandelson or repeatedly rejected Neil Kinnock is picked to be the UK’s EU man in Brussels, I despair. (Current suggestions of Tony Blair for EU president and the abysmal Patricia Hewitt as the next UK Commissioner almost start to make me a conspiracy theorist, so ideally suited to they seem to make the people of Britain hate the EU even more.)

Three years ago, I wrote the following, and it sadly still stands:

Neither side of the EU debate are happy. It seems as though none of those purporting to speak for either the anti or the pro camps are particularly in tune with what the people they claim to represent actually think.

This is largely because there simply haven’t been many (any?) places where reliable information about the EU can be easily found, or where EU politics can be discussed rationally and calmly. The few dedicated EU news sites all have backers with an agenda, either financial or political (EurActiv receives funding from the European Commission, for example, while EU Observer is run by the wife of leading Danish eurosceptic MEP Jens-Peter Bonde). Try going on to EU Referendum’s message boards and arguing the pro-EU case, or saying anything positive in response to a post at Commissioner Wallstrom’s blog. Try doing a Google search for “EU debate”, and I come top of the list – a wonderful indication of the paucity of discussion out there. The BBC has recently been blasted for it’s appalling lack of coverage of EU affairs and, as I noted the other day, with lack of information comes lack of interest and lack of participation. This in turn, as I’ve discussed before, spells the death of democracy.

This is all a problem that is thankfully increasingly becoming recognised, though not yet acted on quickly enough. The European Commission’s most recent addition to the world of online EU debate – the Debate Europe forum – is looking vaguely promising. Yet already there arises the danger of it being swamped by the lunatic fringe, with post topics like Muslim invaders beginning to appear.

Because the trouble is – and as I’m sure I’ve argued before – the EU is so damned boring that it’s really only the obsessives and nutters who can be bothered to talk about it. When it comes to the web, the more dedicated members of any forum come to dominate and shape that forum in their own image – “newbies” and less regular participants quickly feel daunted by the cliquishness and get scared off, compounding the problem. For any meaningful dialogue and debate to kick off about EU issues – online or elsewhere – this problem has to be overcome. Because in the media as well, it is often to the extremes that journalists hunting for a quote turn.

The question is, how to do it without simply banning the lunatic fringe from taking part? It’s something we’d all – from all sides – no doubt love to do, but we all know it wouldn’t really be a solution. After all, it’d just mean we’re all part of the conspiracy…

I guess what I’m hoping for is some neutral middle-ground. Somewhere untainted by association either with the anti-EU extremes or the EU itself, where opposing opinions can be criticised in restrained, respectful tones, not hysterical hyperbole. Is this possible – or is it just as much of a pipedream as a fully-functional EUtopia?