Our Democratic Deficit Exposed

This Referendum has exposed an alarming lack of citizen knowledge about the European Union, which cannot be met with complacency, argues Sophie Gaston.

We are six weeks away from the European Referendum, and while many of us in the political sphere are wondering how we’ll stagger through until 23 June, it is sobering to remember that most of the public are yet to engage with the issue whatsoever.

It is easy to mistake the small polling samples that are splashed across the papers each day for a sense of the ‘public voice’ on the Referendum. However, their participation in a survey does not necessarily mean they will vote on polling day, nor does it reflect any sense of understanding of the most critical issues at the heart of the Referendum debate, nor how the European Union functions more generally.

The 2016 Audit of Political Engagement highlighted this striking knowledge gap – with only 38 per cent of surveyed Britons feeling confident about their understanding of European Union structures and processes, at either a basic or advanced level. Indeed, nearly half of all Britons claimed to know “not very much” whatsoever about the European Union.

In many ways, this is not a surprise: the very nature of transnational governance is incredibly complex, and even those who have worked for a considerable time in the heart of Brussels generally seem to regard it as an inherently convoluted beast. Many journalists I have spoken to refer to the “five year point” as the moment when you feel you have your head around its daily ins and outs.

For common citizens, however, without five years of day-to-day slog in the trenches, there are undoubtedly enormous barriers to understanding and engagement. What is so particularly poignant about this knowledge deficit, however, is that 63 per cent of those surveyed in the Audit claim to be genuinely interested in issues related to the European Union – which is in fact six percentage points higher than those who consider themselves to be interested in politics more generally in the UK.

Most concerning are the demographic disparities between those feeling educated about the European Union, and those for whom it represents a remote, unknowable bureaucracy. It will surprise few to learn that there is a strong level of knowledge amongst middle-aged, white, degree-educated, AB social class types, and very little amongst the young, the poor, and those without any formal qualifications.

As we hurtle towards the Referendum, these divergences will increasingly become the fundamental political battlegrounds for the Leave and Remain campaigns. More generally, they should raise alarm bells for a Government – and indeed, for anybody that cares about the principles of deliberative democracy – that has set a Referendum about a subject that half the population knows nothing about.

What is perhaps specifically problematic for the Remain campaign is that not only are Britons uninformed about the EU’s institutional structures and processes, as the latest 2015 Eurobarometer survey found, but only 45 per cent of Britons feel knowledgeable about their rights as citizens. This survey also indicated that the lack of understanding about the European Union compared to the UK Parliament corresponds with a relative lack of trust – albeit from a small base – with only 29 per cent feeling trusting of the EU institutions, compared to 38 per cent who are trusting of our national Parliament.

The Government’s decision to use the first mass mail-out on the Referendum as a platform for its pro-European case has not helped. Easily dismissed as ‘biased’ by much of the press – and even the Electoral Reform Society, who saw it as “playing fast and loose” – public opinion turned against the mail-out in numbers that suggest even many hardened Bremainers found it inappropriate. While it may have had cut-through with the older part of the population for whom the voice of Government and the medium of post carry some weight, the arguments contained within the booklet will probably never see the outside of an envelope in many other households. What’s more, it has made it more difficult for the Government to distribute less explicitly partisan material during the campaign with authenticity.

Against the white noise backdrop of a highly combative and deadlocked dichotomy, it has largely been charitable and grassroots organisations filling the education gap on the campaign so far. Groups such as The UK in a Changing Europe, Full Fact and even the Royal Society have been playing their part in presenting facts and evidence in a measured way – however, it is uncertain whether they will be able to match the reach of the Brexit and Remain campaigns’ ground operations, and ensure their scrutiny has the last word on the most contested and poorly understood issues.

To some extent, their efforts have been bolstered by support from the BBC, which has been giving space to their analysis and fact-checking, as well as producing a smattering of its own documentaries. Nonetheless, like other media organisations – and perhaps even more so, given the constant pressures it faces to justify its ongoing legitimacy as the public broadcaster – the Beeb has found itself playing a difficult position between two acrimonious sides hell-bent on claiming the foremost authority on all matters of ‘facts’.

For some, the BBC’s response to this challenge has seen it tread the same weary path as during the height of the public debates around climate change. As Lord Patten recently noted on the Today Programme, the BBC’s mandate for providing an objective balance of views is difficult to practice when so many key institutional figures, including, for example, the Governor of the Bank of England, are making a case for Remain.

And yet, despite the presence of many key Government and business figures in its camp, it cannot be said that the case Remain utterly dominates informed opinion to the same extent as the consensus amongst climate scientists. While both issues necessitate future thinking, around which there are inevitable uncertainties, even the most ardent Remainers concede that the question of whether, in the long term, the United Kingdom will thrive or fail in the European Union cannot be asserted as clearly as the short-term consequences.

So, how could our public broadcaster, and the civically minded media more generally, better help citizens to understand where to hedge their bets? Undoubtedly, the fact that the Referendum has necessitated debate around topics of a constitutional nature, or is couched in terms that even key stakeholders often seem at a loss to explain (see: ‘sovereignty’), makes it an especially difficult conversation for the media to show leadership on.

Part of the issue is that the UK is not starting from a great base in reporting on European matters – as academic Katrin Auel has noted, the British media has tended to focus much of its (limited) Brussels reportage on sound bites of outspoken Eurosceptic MPs – many of whom don’t actually have a tacit involvement in European scrutiny or policy-making.

More than a conscious design, this probably simply reflects the media following its nose for conflict and looking to extend the bruising volatility and sense of ‘constant crisis’ of Westminster politics to the environment of a considerably less dynamic transnational governance by consensus. But it is also true that the fact that the entire Referendum campaign has so often been overshadowed by an increasingly fractious civil war within the Conservative Party has firmly rooted the issue of our engagement with Europe within the domestic sphere.

Beyond the Referendum itself, and regardless of the outcome, there are big questions around citizen engagement and education that will need to be answered. It simply cannot be acceptable that such a large proportion of the population feels uninformed about, and/or disengaged from, political institutions that play a significant role in our governance. If we vote to leave, despite so much institutional backing for Remain, this democratic deficit will surely loom over the result as an embarrassment of missed opportunities. If we stay, attention must swiftly turn to determining where responsibility should lie for educating Britons about the European Union.

These messages will inevitably be received with greater trust and legitimacy if led by Whitehall than the European Union, though they should not be vulnerable to political interference. The two obvious vehicles are the BBC, which could have a greater remit to cover day-to-day, business-as-usual reporting from Brussels – to help give a face to these unknowable institutions and representatives – and the Department for Education, which could place a greater emphasis on the European Union (and Westminster, while it’s at it) through its citizenship education programme.

It is worth remembering that there is no certainty that simply knowing more about the EU will increase citizens’ support, and it may in fact increase dissatisfaction. But it should not take a Referendum to expose our ignorance about so many fundamental aspects of its structure and processes.