Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights (Part 4)

Part 4. The questions to be answered

So far, the battle over Britain’s future in the European Union has been taking place in shallow waters. Some of the reasons behind making the debate about such a momentous decision so irrelevant and misplaced were discussed in this paper. They include the priming of the referendum on the outcome of on-going renegotiation of Britain’s status and narrowly focusing the debate on two tactical options, instead of taking a comprehensive view of all the issues involved and seeing the outcome of the would-be referendum in a long term strategic perspective. There are also technical issues involved, such as those related to the quality, or usefulness, of information offered to citizens.*

Most importantly, it appears that the British society is not prepared to take the decision of such a life-changing magnitude yet.

European countries are struggling with numerous problems, trying to recover from the crisis that hit their economies so hard. At the same time, they are working to respond to a broad range of newly emerging political, security, economic, and social and cultural challenges. From increasing authority transfers to Brussels and concerns over  the ‘insufficient legitimacy of supranational institutions’ [1], to the unpopular austerity measures (which some activist from the left regard as the manifestation of ‘departure from the welfare state [2]) to the growing inequality (as between the EU economies, so within each given country), slower than expected (and indeed imperative) growth dynamics, high unemployment among the youth, to the cultural-identitarian concerns and failure of multiculturalism, to the rise of radical movements on both left and right—all this are legitimate concerns of Britons, as well as other Europeans, whether from the EU’s core or its periphery. Most of those problems are not unique to Britain, or to Europe as such—they are being witnessed across all the industrialised countries.

One group of questions is about how much of these problems can be attributed to the EU: What are causes of these problems and what are their effects? Where do they originate from? And to what extent the solutions are in the hands of the European institutions and how much is in hands of national governments?

Another group of questions is concerned with the reform: How the EU shall be reformed in order to be better suited to address the mounting and unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century? What is the role of Britain and other leading countries (such as Germany and France) in the reform process and, later on, in the reformed Europe? What kind of reforms to address Britain’s domestic problems the Government shall undertake on its own, within its sovereign responsibility? Is it possible to undertake two sets of reforms—domestic and common European—simultaneously and, above all, harmoniously?

These are not easy questions to answer, but these are the only relevant kind of questions to be posed and reflected upon. And if no one is ready to offer the answers today (what seems to be the case), then perhaps the best course of action would be not to rush with holding the referendum and instead to engage in a properly administered policy analysis deliberative process, in order to bring clarity and separate the wheat from the chaff. Such process shall normally involve two groups of audiences, where the communication is maintained as within each group’s members, so between the groups. One group comprises scientists, politicians and advocates [3] and another group is of citizen and institutional stakeholders.

This process requires a good organisation behind it. Considering vested interests of various groups and the enthusiasm with which both camps, and their affiliates and associated media outlets are going to convince citizens in the rightness of the choices promoted by them respectively—the role of impartial professional assistance to the constituency will be of paramount importance. And it sounds logical that this should be the Government’s responsibility to provide such an objective and balanced information by means of an ad hoc committee comprising the representatives of all parties and interested sides, along with independent policy analysts and subject matter and communication experts.

Interestingly, the findings of this process will help decide on the final set questions about the referendum itself: Does the referendum, as it has been set today and whatever its outcome, offers the solution? Does it serve the interests of citizens of the United Kingdom? Or is it a manifestation of political struggle of political and economic elites? For example, there has been an argument set forth by Andrew Glencross, that the ‘the simplicity and decisiveness that a referendum, particularly one that spurns the EU, promises is merely a mirage. … British political parties are presenting an in/out referendum as a simple solution to a complex problem. The reality is that direct democracy cannot resolve the Europe question – and nor should it: political and economic ties with the EU necessarily form part of an enduring British political conversation.’ [4]

Whether to hold the referendum in the end or to abolish the idea and to find some other mechanism/solution is a crucial decision, which can only be reasonably decided upon the policy deliberative process suggested herein. If the decision (as informed by various forums) is to run the referendum, then it would not be late to hold it, say, in March 2017 – still well within the timeline initially promised by the Prime Minister, when the citizens would be in good position to take their well-informed decisions on the United Kingdom’s future. It is important to remember that the real decision Britons will take is not about an immediate ‘leave or remain’ choice—it is about forward-looking ‘what and how’ strategic alternatives.

* Policy analysis issues will be addressed in a separate post.

[1] Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter, ‘Beyond authority transfer: explaining the politicisation of Europe,’ West European Politics, 39/1 (2016), pp. 23-43 at 23

[2] See, for example, Thomas Fazi, The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent and How We Can Take it Back (London: Pluto Press, 2014)

[3] According to James Throgmorton, these are the must-talk-to audiences in policy analysis process, see James A. Throgmorton, ‘The rhetorics of policy analysis,’ Policy Sciences, 24/2 (1991), pp. 153-179 at 174

[4] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317

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