Saturday 15 September 2007

EU referendum

Ming Campbell's call for a referendum on the EU has received quite a bit of attention in the blogosphere, from friends and foes alike. I like the idea, though I wish it had come out in a slightly more coherent way.

One particular reason why I like it is that I think the pro vote would increase if the arguments were properly aired during a campaign, as the LibDem vote itself tends to do at election time. Most British people's opinions of the EU are founded on either ignorance or downright falsehood. I used to teach about the EU when I tutored for the WEA. The first time I tried to teach it in a rational way by talking about the institutions etc, but the class was always getting sidetracked by the latest scandal. So I changed the presentation, because I needed to confront the issue of falsehood straight away. I chose to start with one of those true/false quizzes - the EU wants all pizzas to be square - true or false? The EU wants fishermen to wear hairnets - true or false? Inevitably most of the class said most of them were true. They were in fact all false, but had all been announced as true by [insert name of any tabloid here]. I always told my classes that I was basically pro the idea of the EU, but I didn't in the least mind people continuing to disagree, as long as they did so on the basis of the truth, not the bilge that they are fed daily by the tabloid press.

I then used to go on to the budget. I drew a graph on the board with Richard Branson and Bill Gates down at the bottom, just to get some sort of scale in, then the UK government's budget vaguely in the middle, and then the US government's budget at the top. I then asked my class where they estimated the EU's budget would be. Inevitably, again, they would put it near the top, vastly more than the UK's budget. I would then astonish them by giving them the true figure, which was and remains considerably less than the UK's budget. The figures for this year are for the EU 115b euros, which at today's exchange rate translates into £79.5b. The UK budget for this year is £587b,so the EU budget is around 14% of the UK's. (The US budget is more difficult to track down but this page from the White House suggests around £1.4 trillion.)

So how do these stories get in the papers they would say. There must be a grain of truth in them. So I would illustrate by taking the story of fishermen and hairnets. I don't know that this is what happened but I can guarantee that something like it did. A civil servant in Brussels is given the job of harmonising health and safety rules among the EU countries. She breaks the job down into a variety of fields. One of them is use of moving machinery, so she drafts a paragraph or two to do with industrial workers wearing hairnets while using moving machinery that might catch their hair. Then, being a sensible civil servant, she sends a memo to all her colleagues in the other directorates to ask for their comments. Her colleague in Agriculture writes back to say there's clearly going to be an issue about people working on, say, tractors and fishing boats. Some sort of exclusion will be needed. The memo goes into our first civil servant's in tray. In the evening the cleaner comes round and as he wipes his duster round the desk, his eye falls on the memo "Fishermen, hairnets. Gor blimey", he says (or whatever the Brussels equivalent of gor blimey is). Next day at the cafe, he tells his friend "Saw something about fishermen and hairnets yesterday. What do they spend their time on." At the next table is a stringer who overhears, and promptly rings [insert name of any UK tabloid here] because he knows there's money in it for him. Next thing you know, a journalist is saying, "Nice one, my son. Hundred nicker on its way to your account now", and another "Brussels does it again" headline is in the making.

The only thing that bothers me about the idea of a referendum is that millions of British people will be confronted with the fact that they have been deliberately and persistently lied to for a very long time, and it may be too uncomfortable for them to believe it.

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