Making a big decision

April 18, 1997

Europe is the election's neglected issue, says Brian Brivati. The ghost at the feast of this election is Europe. Despite the prompting of anti-European ginger groups, the main parties resist full debate. This is a result not only of the threat it poses to the unity of both Labour and the Conservatives, but also of the European Union's chronic image problem. Unless you see it as a threat to life as we know it, you probably think it is boring.

Dullness leads to ignorance. A recent Mori poll found that if 100 people are asked about the EU, 85 express varying degrees of ignorance and 89 cannot identify the single market. Yet, like the atom bomb for an earlier generation, Europe appears to galvanise academics, or at least those who oppose British involvement, into political action. Martin Holmes, of St Hugh's College, Oxford, runs the Bruges Group while Alan Sked, of the London School of Economics, leads the UK Independence party. They benefit from ignorance. The case against the union is simple, even simplistic. The case for, though compelling once understood, is more complex. Pro-European academics are generally less politically involved. For them, careful study of Europe leads to more complex views.

The real debate about the future of Europe is concerned not with single currencies or the content of sausages, but with the democratic deficit in union institutions. Too few Europeans have a direct say in how these institutions, including the Parliament, are run. Members are elected by and accountable to too few individuals. As a result most Europeans feel that decisions from Brussels are not owned by them. Reduce this deficit and arguments against the union would be more clearly seen as the ranting it usually is.

But we also need to give European issues a more significant role in our domestic elections. It is odd that, when we have voters in a booth, we only ask them one question. Information technology offers the chance to inform and question people on their political stance. It could take half an hour per voter and we might have to poll over two days, but it would be useful to have a five-yearly census of the nation's political views and at the same time inform people about European issues. Synchronising national or local elections with European ones would strenghten the democratic mandate of European MPs.

Day to day access is more difficult. The European Parliament is trying. UK Citizens Online Democracy recently ran an electronic seminar between business, campaigning groups and MEPs on the issue of economic and monetary union, a pilot for the kind of link that could be made between citizens and the European Parliament. The seminar had technical hitches and most British voters are not yet online, but the potential is clear.

This election will offer little analysis and much posturing. By next election the single currency, foundation of a federal Europe, might have been launched. If so we will need a much better informed electorate and a more dynamic debate.

Brian Brivati, reader at Kingston University.

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