Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights (Part 2)

Part 2. Missing the forest for the trees: the limitations of framing

‘Either-or’ choice of a narrow frame

At the time being, the referendum debate in the media has taken shape of weighing advantages and limitations (or costs and benefits) of Britain’s membership in the EU, by the opposing camps, in order for the public to figure out the balance and make their minds. The approach being quite logical, it can be easily observed that the entire debate has been inadequately, or narrowly, framed.

Communication experts claim that frames are unavoidable, in part because they help simplifying the decision making process. As defined by political communication expert Robert Entman, ‘to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.’ [1] The problem is that framing (whether intentionally or not) may distort the picture and risk hijacking the outcome sought—an insignificant fraction selected as representing the whole entity is given undue prominence, and in that way a decision is eventually taken. The narrow frame may also take from the table the most valuable choices to consider.

One manifestation of narrow framing is that the EU referendum’s choice has been taken as strictly ‘either-or’ business. Such an antagonistic stand-off ignores the complexity of the modern world and results in a simplistic stock-piling of arguments on the opposite arms of a balance. This is not much useful approach for the purpose of the referendum because both sides will present narratives abundant of facts and figures in support of their stance and will turn it eventually into a negative sum game, the decision theory’s situation with no winners. Continued in this fashion the discussion won’t help Britons making informed decision at the ballot box this summer (or any other date, to this matter).

The frame translates itself into two options currently debated. Even if the conditionality on negotiation results is taken out, they still do not offer a set of plausible alternatives for the public to consider. One is to stay in the EU simply because it has been more beneficial for Britain to team up with the continental Europe. This sounds as a ‘passive acceptance’ attitude, which simply surrenders to the prevailing circumstances, something like escape-behaviour. Another option is to exit from the EU because playing alone, with no commitments attached, has always been in Britain’s best interest. This is a ‘predetermined negation’ attitude towards EU which builds on the notion of Britain’s perceived comparative advantages. If we look closer at these options they do not appear to represent the reality, nor do they meet the overall intention of the referendum.

The two options are lacking a strategic perspective, the single important feature of such an endeavour as referendum. Even an unsophisticated analysis makes it obvious that these options do not stand the test: both are viewing the British/EU relations as static (based on the assessment of present moment’s snapshot or, at best, on the most recent trend) and rather one-sided (concerning the two entities only, without taking the global context into equation). In other words, this frame does not take into consideration the dynamic and evolutionary nature of political processes that are never satisfied with status quo, do not accept anything as a permanent fix but rather view them as temporary solutions to be challenged in the future, once the opportunity avails itself.

This is especially evident in the light of the most prominent of British claims—about the regaining her sovereignty.  It has also been the longest maintained concern with regards to her membership in the European Union: it is enough to recall the annoyance of European politicians at the British demands for long term sovereignty safeguards in advance, during the entry negotiations back in the 1970s. At the heart of this British quest essentially lies the same central question that was formulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than two centuries ago: ‘How to find a form of association, which will defend the person and goods of each other member in the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.’ [2] This is what shall be debated. Otherwise, why to bother at all with holding such a high-profile, expensive, time and effort consuming event, which also happens to raise expectations evoked by zealous argumentation of the opposing sides?

A need for strategic focus, broader perspective

It appears that, as a result of narrow framing very important other options were left aside, thereby limiting the choice spectrum. Two of them deserve special attention. One option is to stay in order to continue the attempts at reforming the EU and getting Britain a fairer deal, from the inside. This has been a long-standing argument held by the integration proponents—that Britain stands better chances to succeed with the reforms when it is a member state. It resembles a somewhat ‘resilient’ attitude towards the rigidity of the EU’s governance. Another option is to exit the EU but leave the door open for pursuing the negotiations on a comprehensive revision of the Treaty and Britain’s place in the reformed Europe, as an outsider. To me, this option would stand for an ‘evolutionary’ attitude—one built on both the cooperation with neighbours and the strengthening of domestic societal and institutional adaptive capacity.

A detailed assessment and comparison of these two sets of options (one that is currently at offer and another briefly presented above) is beyond the scope of this article, but one example would help underlining the principal difference. Suppose that you are driving round a place you have not been before. What would you use as guidance: street signs or a map? The former is rather straightforward and easy to follow, but once you face an unexpected obstacle, you are lost. The latter, to the contrast, demands some effort to comprehend but offers various choices for navigation and thus, allows adapting to the changed circumstances. Perhaps it would be fair to say that a direct, narrow guidance is useful for tactical decisions, while mapping is the relevant guidance for deciding on strategic and complex issues.

Away from narrow frames, at this point it is possible to share two thoughts on shaping the future discussion. First is that the EU referendum debate shall adopt a forward looking approach—the one that looks beyond the referendum day and into what is going to happen after the decision is taken.  Then people will come to the ballots with realistic understanding of the consequences of their decision. Moreover, they will do so upon reflecting on the strategic choice and being prepared to answer the critical question: How do we want the European Union, Britain, and their relations develop in the decades to come?

Another insight is that the discussion shall look beyond the EU/Britain relations, to adopt a balanced view of national, European and global goals and interests. Today, cost-benefit analysis of British membership in the EU accounts for only one dimension and does not take into consideration the broader context. These relations, being multifaceted and quite nuanced in their own right, occur in a complex political, security, social and economic environment. Moreover, this environment is very dynamic and full of uncertainty—it is rapidly changing across broad variety of factors and is continuously influenced by competing (sometimes even conflicting) interests of domestic and international actors.


[1] Robert M. Entman, ‘Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm,’ Journal of Communication, 42/4 (1993), p. 52

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract on Principles of Political Right, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Classics, 1968 [1762]), p.51



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