A subject worth another look every year or so – especially with EU elections looming in 2009 – is what sort of discussion (if any) the European Union is inspiring among its citizens. After all, I remain top Google result for “EU debate” (and second only to the EU’s own Debate Europe forum without the inverted commas), and the nature of political discourse surrounding the EU was one of the reasons I first started blogging about the whole thing. (Largely to slag off some of the nuttier anti-EU types, at first, but I’ve expanded a bit since then…)
I last had a look at EU debate nine months ago, which provides a fairly handy overview of how nothing much has changed during the time I’ve been blogging (Don’t believe me? Here’s a post on the subject from four years ago) – and that followed an intensive series of posts on the possibilities for building a genuine European demos that I did for openDemocracy (that’s the thing that I got shortlisted for that Reuters award for).
As such, for me to do another post on the subject is largely redundant. Thankfully, however, the newly revamped Kosmopolito (at an all new address and with an extra vowel) has had a stab, and brings a different, yet complimentary, take to the whole thing. One point in particular that stands out, however:
It is still cumbersome for non-experts to monitor the EU decision making process. Especially the internet and new online tools have the potential to make it easier to monitor and control EU decision making processes. Even though the europa.eu portal contains most of the information, it needs a serious relaunch. A new EU portal needs to be transparent, with a focus on policy processes that makes it easy to follow documents, combined with some interactive elements.
This cannot be stressed enough. I’m actively interested in the EU. I’ve been blogging about it for five years. I know my way around most of the sources of EU information available online, and I know (roughly) where to start looking to delve deeper into particular subjects. Yet even I still find it difficult to find what I’m looking for sometimes. (Where is an EU equivalent of TheyWorkForYou or The Public Whip? The only thing similar is Brussel Stemt, a Dutch-language site tracking the votes of Dutch MEPs – as far as I’m aware there’s nothing else out there.) The Europa portal has a near impossible task in trying to provide so much information in so many different languages, certainly, but it remains one of the most confusing, unintuitive sites on the web.
One of the major reasons why Euromyths spread so quickly – and also why the Lisbon Treaty has sparked so much opposition – is that the people find it impossible to find out information about the EU for themselves. (As noted the other day, to argue against the classic straight bananas Euromyth necessitates hunting down an obscure EU regulation and then trawling through and attempting to understand seven pages of legal jargon. Far easier just to believe what your newspaper tells you.)
If information is hard to come by or hard to understand, the power of the press and other self-professed experts to influence public opinion is massively increased. When the experts and the press are themselves ill-informed (as most journalists writing about the EU and many national politicians commenting on it sadly are) or biased (as is certainly often the case in the UK), the public is – intentionally or otherwise – going to be misled and misinformed. A misled and misinformed public in turn leads to misinformed debate, and that to an ineffective democracy. (Indeed, it’s arguable that part of the reason the public are so uninterested in the EU is that they’ve been consistently misinformed about just how important it is to their daily lives – if only they knew, claim some eurosceptics, they’d be up in arms.)
I’m afraid I can’t see this situation changing any time soon. EU debates outside the Brussels beltway remain largely non-existent, dominated by lack of solid factual knowledge and understanding (by both sides) and a lack of interest from anyone bar obsessives (as Jon Worth noted is still the case as recently as June, and as I’ve been saying for years). Hell, sometimes even the obsessives aren’t that interested.
As a related aside to the lack of interest thing, a couple of days ago I was interviewed by a journalist from a French newspaper for an article he’s doing about the world of EU blogs. He seemed genuinely shocked at how low my readership figures are (though, thinking about it, I realised I was being old-fashioned and forgot to add in RSS and email subscribers, who are arguably the most important, and which would double the figure I gave him).
Interest in EU blogs is certainly low compared to the readership that can be gained by other political blogs – the top UK political blog along probably getting more readers than all the EU-focussed blogs put together. Yet if I compare this site’s stats to the weekly sales of the Economist’s EU-centred newspaper European Voice (PDF), they’re pretty much comparable. Knowing how magazine readership figures are calculated (i.e. take copies sold and multiply by a factor of 2-4), this blog’s readership is probably also comparable to that of The Parliament Magazine (PDF).
At its height, this blog was pulling in as many readers in a month as either of these two fully professionally-produced magazines – and at one point as much as both of them put together. Take out the free copies both publications send unsolicited to various MEPs, Commissioners and other EU institutional staff, and it’s a toss-up who out of the three of us has more actual readers.
Which really just goes to prove my point that no one’s interested about the EU. Without interest and participation, how can we have a good debate?