Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights

Upon his arrival from Brussels the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he had secured a good deal for Britain and called for the referendum on EU membership to take place on 23 June. Even though the date of the referendum was confirmed only today, a debate was gaining momentum for some time already, with two opposing camps positioning themselves against each other in the halls, the media, and web-based networks. And although there is a long and zigzagging way to go, certain features of the campaign can be observed already at this point, and learning lessons now and taking timely corrective actions would definitely benefit the quality of future discussions and their eventual outcome. I will look at the debate from three angles: supply side of the politics (the Government, in this case the Prime Minister and his aides), intermediaries (campaigners from both camps and the media), and the demand side (citizens and their groups).

Part 1. Mistaking the shadow for the substance: the effects of priming

Setting the agenda, controlling the outcome

It appears rather odd to me, that after an over four-decade-long and quite happy marriage the fate of the relationship—whether to stay together or divorce—has been made dependent on the outcome of the Prime Minister’s on-going negotiations with the European leaders and the Commission.

According to Eurosceptics, the problems of Britain’s EU membership have always been of fundamental character; therefore they are much broader and deeper than present-day issues negotiated by the Government. This notwithstanding, step by step the public attention has been taken away from those big problems and ‘primed’ on the current negotiations results. The secret of priming lies in the associative nature of our memory and opinion formation, when externally introduced ideas have a capability of promoting certain causal interpretations and thus, invoking sequential thoughts and actions with relative ease. In this case, the public opinion on whether to leave or to stay in the EU is increasingly correlated with, and made dependent upon, the success of negotiations and the concessions to be made against the Prime Minister’s offers to fellow European leaders. This opens doors for mistaking the shadow for the substance, I am afraid.

From the outset, the dilemma of staying or exiting was formulated as of universal scale. And it was absolutely correct: Britain’s relationship with EU is the largest policy issue of the day because its outcome will decide which strategic path the country takes. This is a critical issue, with vested interests of a broad range of domestic and international actors involved. Britons believe that they add a unique value to the Union and therefore deserve a special, much fairer treatment. Thus, they expect meaningful concessions on a number of fundamental issues of concern.

Negotiations with the EU leadership and the heads of state, however, have not gone as successfully as intended. The most significant British proposals were dismissed right away under the pretext that the Treaty could not be revisited or precedents could not be set. This was a clear signal of where the negotiations were heading, which unfortunately did not get rightful attention at home. Today, there is no single proposal, whatever small and insignificant, where the deal is guaranteed. Even comparatively modest changes to Britain’s status are somehow acknowledged with sympathy by some countries, but not welcomed by others.

In response, British negotiators have dropped, ‘downgraded’, or replaced their demands after every unsuccessful attempt to renegotiate her status in all four major areas negotiated. Take just the relatively recent shuffling, from ‘repatriation’ of sovereignty through the exemption from ‘ever closer union’ to a group-bound ‘red cards’; from the tax and regulation ‘safeguards’ to the City, to mere recognition of the coexistence between euro and other currencies; from curbing the migration to  temporary and hardly target-hitting ‘emergency break’ with no clear mechanism behind it. And it goes on and on, leaving an impression that instead of sticking firmly to principal demands agreeable to both sides of British stay-exit divide, the negotiation team has embraced the strategy of easily accepting refusals, finding excuses, and tabling yet another, less radical offer—in a desperate bid to secure a deal, any deal, whatever the price.

This manner of dealing with difficulties of the external world has been famously observed by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He elaborated on Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes: The fox tried hard to reach the grapes, but failed; then making light of it, he concluded that they were sour anyways. Sartre pointed out that it was not the quality of the grapes that changed in the meantime, but the fox’s perception of them—he transformed the reality in order to be able to cope with it. Sartre called this ‘escape behaviour’ from the world’s obstinacy [1]. Interestingly, a similar observation was made by Sir Harold Nicolson about ‘the average Englishman’ at the time, that ‘when faced with conditions involving tremendous and most unpleasant mental effort, he escaped from that effort by pretending that these conditions were easily remediable, or much exaggerated or actually nonexistent.’ [2]

Wrong association, irrelevant choices

Whether the above is a sign of skilful political manoeuvring or the escape-behaviour, concerns us not at this point. Everyone understands the difficulty and intricacies involved in such an endeavour. This is not an easy task at all, to get a concession from 27 fellow members plus the Brussels based bureaucracy, in the environment where no one seems to live the easy times and thus tries to negotiate some ‘reforms’ to their individual or group benefit.

However, making the referendum dependent upon the outcome of negotiations has a two-fold repercussion for Britain. On the one hand, it affects the outcome of these negotiations: under the mounting pressure of public expectations at home, the British team behaves hastily and thus exposes its weakness of being desperately in need of a deal—something that their skilful European counterparts eagerly exploit. The art and craft of politics rests in making gains from never ending trade-offs, after all.

On the other hand, the public opinion on the fundamental issue is primed, made subordinate to some deal over the vaguely understood concessions which may or may not meet the level of referendum’s momentous decision. This situation resembles the observation made by the historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson: ‘The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take.’ [3] The reality is that, whatever issues are at stake at the negotiation table today, they still are business-as-usual of the politics, something that the officials from all member states are ought to do on an ongoing basis. They are rather technical by their nature and tactical by their level of significance, and as such, their outcome cannot and shall not determine the referendum’s result.

If we follow the behavioural pattern primed on the negotiations, then the rest appears quite predictable in the light of what is already unfolding upon the conclusion of the most recent round of Brussels talks: Britain will get the deal on one or more issues and this will create an impression of glorious victory, something that she desired on the whole. Even though it is utterly irrelevant to the subject matter, our intuitive decision-making nonetheless works so smoothly that no one will ever notice that from the outset they were simply bound to the wrongly imposed association: ‘[whatever] Concession—Britain’s demands met—We stay in’.

[1] For the interpretation of this episode from Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of Emotions, see: Robert C. Solomon, Introducing the Existentialists: Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger and Camus (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 1981), p.22; and Robert C. Solomon and David L. Sherman, eds., The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.170

[2] Harold Nicolson, ‘Is war inevitable?’, The Nineteenth Century and After, 126/749 (1939), pp. 1-14

[3] C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law, or The Pursuit of Progress (London: Buccaneer Books, 1993), p. 103




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