Friday, November 23, 2007

Shooting the messengers

I argued a while ago that a referendum on the new EU treaty agreed at Lisbon would be a bad way of resolving Britain’s overall relationship with the EU, as the vote would be asking a specific question on a given set of proposals – which sits very uneasily with the supposed aim of settling the more general matter.

My point is borne out by UK media responses to the Danish government’s proposal for a referendum on joining the euro (plus a couple of other areas covered by the country’s Maastricht treaty opt-outs).

The Times spins the story thus:

Britain faced further isolation within the European Union yesterday after Denmark announced that it was giving its citizens the chance to vote in a referendum on its relationship with Europe.

That’s a weaselly phrase there at the end, deftly blurring the distinction between one EU issue and another.

The Guardian, whose broader attitude to Europe is very different from the Times, takes a similar line on this:

Denmark will hold a referendum on the country's relationship with Europe, its prime minister said today. The decision increases the pressure on Gordon Brown to honour the Labour party's 2005 manifesto pledge to hold a similar referendum in Britain.

There’s the same phrase about this being on Denmark’s “relationship with Europe”, sweeping the vital details under the carpet to suggest a parity (“a similar referendum”) with the British decision on the Lisbon treaty.

These are two of the country’s quality papers. And this is the mere proposal for a future referendum in another country. Yet still, the muddying of the waters from specific to general to different specific is almost instantaneous.

Trying to separate out different EU issues and have an intelligible referendum campaign on one but not the others would be pretty much impossible in the UK media. They are so used to thinking in political rather than policy terms (where issues are significant only for feeding into broader impressions of parties and individuals), and so set on reporting with a very broad brush, that the necessary focus is beyond them.


Andre said...

I see your point, but isn't it like voting for a political party - you might like one or two proposals but you might disagree with the manifesto as a whole.

Each reform treaty seems to be leading us closer towards a federal Europe. How that can ever work out is beyond me.

Tom Freeman said...

That's true, but then voting for a party is quite a different thing from a referendum on their whole policy platform.

I think public votes work best when they're either on one reasonably clear issue or on the whole identity of the government and their overall programme. Anything in between and the scope for confusion and distraction (what's in, what's out) increases.