How much do EU know?

As Britain prepares to vote in next month’s European elections, Richard Norrie reveals the scale of our ignorance about the EU.

Just how well do you know the European Union? If you’re feeling confident, why not test yourself with our quiz:

1. Switzerland is a member of the EU – true or false?
2. The European Union has 25 member states – true or false?
3. Every country in the EU elects the same number of representatives to the European Parliament – true or false?
4. Every six months, a different member state becomes president of the Council of the European Union – true or false?

The answers are at the end of this article. Give yourself one point for every correct answer, no points for any incorrect answer. No cheating. How did you do?

These questions were put to Europeans in 2009 as part of the European Elections Study. They allow us to measure how much Europeans know about the European political system. Across Europe, the average score (i.e. correct answers out of four) was 2.05, suggesting that citizens of the European Union have quite a bit to learn about the workings of the political system they are part of. Even the best performer – Austria – managed only 2.77, while Romania comes in last with an average of 1.20 points. The United Kingdom limps home in 22nd place with a mean score of 1.67 points. To put this result in perspective, had Britons answered these questions by flipping a coin, they would have done better.

Figure 1: map of quiz scores across the EU

The fact that Britain is one of the richest European countries with one of the best education systems – and more importantly, with the possibility of a referendum on membership of the EU, is worrying. Dig a little deeper into the results and things get more interesting. People who identified themselves as Labour party supporters scored significantly less well than those who identified as supporters of the Conservative party. Lib Dems scored the same as Conservatives. People with no party affiliation did as badly as Labour supporters.

People who identified themselves as working class performed significantly less well than those who identified as middle class. The discrepancy between Labour and Tory sympathisers remains even when controlling for social class although it is attenuated somewhat. Those who identified themselves as in some way European did better on the quiz than those who identified themselves solely as British.

How can we improve this situation? Exposure to the media may improve knowledge, but it depends on which media one is exposed to. Those who follow the news regularly, either on radio or television, did significantly better than those who did not. Among the newspapers, it was only regular Guardian readership that was associated with higher scores; readership of the Daily Telegraph and the Sun bore no significant relationships once controls were applied. Greater educational attainment was also associated with greater knowledge of the EU.

Why does all this matter? Voters should know what their vote means, and if they lack knowledge of even the basics of the political system, it will be hard for them to make informed choices at the polls.

John Stuart Mill argued that suffrage should be conditional on the individual having a minimum threshold of knowledge. In Considerations on Representative Government he suggested that would-be voters should be able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. He wrote:

‘It would be eminently desirable…that some knowledge of the conformation of the earth, its natural and political divisions, the elements of general history, and of the history and institutions of their own country, could be required from all electors.’

Mill held back from supporting stricter voter knowledge qualifications, as he believed this would open the door to much abuse. From American history in particular, we know how voting qualifications can be used to exclude ethnic minorities.

Across Europe, anti-EU politics is on the rise and yet actual knowledge of the EU is limited. If the British public are indeed to make a choice in a referendum on European Union membership, then it stands to reason they must be informed. While there is a strong argument for the electorate deciding on matters of national sovereignty, it is a cause for concern that such a difficult economic and social question would be put to an electorate that struggles with the basics.

* The quiz answers are: (1) false, (2) false, (3) false, (4) true