The importance of Election Day: MEP Hustings for London

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European elections are usually no big affair. They lack the drama of national ballots and most Europeans simply do not see how it affects them in the way local politics would. Since the first European parliamentary election in 1979 turnout has fallen from 62% to just 43% in 2009, and current predictions are not encouraging. With turnout set to dwindle below 40% this May, Europe seems to have fallen out of love with the European project. Or has it?

That is precisely the question Europeans will go to the polls on May 22nd-25th to answer. This is also why this time around European elections do matter. After five years of crisis and a slow-going recovery, these elections have turned into a referendum of sorts for the support of EU integration. While Euroscepticism is nothing new, it is certainly growing in most countries and its correlation with the increase in unemployment is not exactly surprising. Many Europeans, especially in the South, blame Brussels for their woes.

Two factors will be crucial for these European elections: first, overall participation, and second, the share of the vote won by protest parties. The most pessimistic stats predict up to a third of the vote going to Nikolaos Michaloliakos’s Golden Dawn in Greece, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the like. Of course, EU advocates’ biggest fear is that this mass of extreme, anti-immigration, populist parties, only united in their loathing of the EU, will benefit from the current socioeconomic situation.

This is also the impression I got at NCVO’s ‘Europe Day MEP hustings for London’, a meeting chaired by Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO’s Chief Executive, where many New Europeans had the opportunity to pose questions to a panel of MEP candidates for London from all the major parties. The panel included Marina Yannakoudakis from the Conservatives, Seb Dance from Labour, Jonathan Fryer from the Liberal Democrats, and Jean Lambert from the Greens. The UKIP contender was invited but declined to attend.

It is remarkable that none of the candidates at the event seemed to call on people to vote for their own party as much as they tried to raise awareness about how important going out to vote on May 22nd really is. It is a big deal, especially in the UK, a country with a longstanding tradition of Euroscepticism and where UKIP enjoys growing support. Inquiries about the Roma community and the treatment of Polish citizens in the UK really asserted the importance of immigration as UKIP’s main political weapon. On top of this, apathy among the rest of the population only serves to inflate UKIP’s share of the vote.

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While Euroscepticism and immigration were definitely the main issues, questions were also raised about day-to-day matters such as health and consumer policies, green infrastructure in London or the dismal unemployment situation facing young people in Europe. Indeed, a survey conducted for our project, ‘Reconnecting UK Youth to Europe’, found that young British people believe that youth unemployment should be the EU’s number one priority.

Aside from these issues, a significant part of the talk indirectly focused on the European Parliament’s lack of legitimacy in the eyes of European citizens. Only around 10% of the potential 380 million Europeans eligible to choose the 751 MEPs can name a MEP from their own region. Even if this can partly be blamed on the fact that most countries favour a ‘closed list’ system, the figure also shows how unengaged Europeans feel with the whole electoral process.

Although successive modifications of the Treaties have put the European Parliament on almost equal footing with the Council of the EU in the procedure to pass laws proposed by the European Commission, the truth is that complaints about a lack of real democracy in the European institutions stand their ground. After all, elections rarely change much: whether run by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) or the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Parliament’s actions barely change course. On top of that, EU law writing is an intrinsically complex and not very transparent procedure, dependent on compromises between many players, a lot of which are not even within the institutions.

At the NCVO event, these concerns took the form of questions regarding the enormous influence of big companies and the possibility of improving citizens’ and NGOs’ access to decision-making processes. Various candidates suggested forming coalitions of charities, NGOs or even citizens to reach greater lobbying power in the EU. Seb Dance mentioned the importance of changing people’s perception of MEPs as ‘unreachable figures’; apparently it is actually quite easy to reach out to individual MEPs who could be partial to a specific cause and decide to champion it in the European Parliament.

The conclusion beyond this event is that work is definitely needed to eliminate the gap between civil society and the EU institutions. Evidently this will not happen overnight. However, a first step in this direction, especially considering the very narrow race for the European elections in the UK and the real possibility that UKIP will win the majority of the votes, would be for you to make sure you vote and make your voice heard.

Beatriz

If you wish to contact me about anything in this post, please e-mail me at Beatriz.JambrinaCanseco@euclidnetwork.eu.

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Will the EU get a social media election? #EP2014UK

ImageA few weeks ago, on behalf of Euclid Network, I attended an event at Europe House which asked the question ‘will the EU get a social media election?’ As we get closer to the European Parliament elections in 2014, the question of what role social media will play is gathering momentum. Will it be as influential as it was in the US elections? Is there a European digital space? Is the increasing presence of political parties on social media changing the political landscape, or is it just more noise than value? The task of addressing these issues fell to the panel which consisted of: Thibault Lesenecal, Acting Head of Web Communication Unit at the European Parliament; Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for East of England; Ben Fowkes, Delib; Karen Melchoir, candidate for European Parliament election 2014 in Denmark; Andy Williamson, Consultant and blogger on political digital engagement; and Chair, Jimmy Leach, Digital Consultant and former Head of Digital at FCO, Downing Street, and The Independent.

The event kicked off with Thibault Lesenecal (@tayebot), briefly outlining what the European Parliament is doing in an effort to harness social media ahead of the upcoming European elections. Essentially, the European Parliament is attempting to act as a cross platform network; it is active on Twitter, Flickr and has a Facebook account with 1.1 million likes (only 4% of which are in Belgium, so it’s not just the Brussels Bubble). On top of this, the EP is developing apps and has embarked on a huge branding campaign which aims to raise awareness of not only the Parliament, but also the elections, MEPs and European politics in general. Each of these aspects of the EP’s social media campaign will, they hope, work in unison to make the 2014 elections a live, interactive and exciting event for citizens across the continent. But will it? This is the question the panellists were here to address, and following Lesenecal’s introduction, they went about examining the prospects of a ‘social media election’ in 2014.

Richard Howitt (@richardhowitt) went first, explaining why he thought social media would be a significant factor in the 2014 European elections. Howitt began by giving an example of how social media helps him engage with his constituents; he could spend a few hours driving to see a few of his 6 million constituents, and he’s happy to, but it’s far more efficient to talk to them on Twitter. Furthermore, many people use social media more than traditional media so it makes sense for politicians to place themselves where the people are. This was recently demonstrated, as Howitt noted, when Labour announced its plan to freeze energy prices; this news generated 4.5 million tweets, more than watched the BBC news. Finally, Howitt mentioned the role social media can play in creating trust between politicians and the public; the theory is that the increased insight into the lives of politicians brought about by social media will allow the public to see that ‘they are just normal people’.

However, following Howitt’s optimistic vision of social media’s role in the European elections, Ben Fowkes (@ben_fowkes), of Delib, outlined a rather different view, which started a ‘politicians vs. geeks’ theme which continued to run throughout the event. Fowkes had two clear reasons why he believed that this election would not be a social media election. Firstly, he argued that we should be using the internet to change the democratic process; websites need to be the priority, at the moment they are out-dated and ineffective, but if done properly they will have a bigger role in elections than social media. The second point built upon this by emphasising that the internet should be used not only for engagement, which social media can do, but for interaction, and this is where websites should succeed over social media.

The next member of panel to tackle this topic was Karen Melchior (@karmel80). On the ‘politicians vs. geeks’ division, Melchior unsurprisingly fell on the side of politicians, and immediately emphasised her belief that social media will change these elections. Melchior’s primary justification for this faith in the power of social media was the fact that more and more politicians are being ‘forced’ to use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter; for the simple reason that if they were not on there, they would not have a way of defending themselves when other people write about them. Following this, Melchior decided to make a small dig at Howitt, by saying that social media and relating to the public was less important if you were already placed on a party list, like Howitt. The Labour MEP defended himself on this, by pointing out that even if he is on a party list, his online presence is still important for representing both himself and the party as a whole.

The final speaker, and in my opinion the most interesting on the day, was Andy Williamson (@andy_williamson). Williamson began by suggesting that Melchior is confusing why we vote and why we engage with politics; the public do not just criticise and engage with politicians to decide who to vote for, and politicians should not just use these tools in an attempt to become popular ahead of an election. Furthermore, social media does not work as well for political parties as it does for individual politicians. However, echoing Howitt’s point, a good politician will improve the party brand as a whole. The next point was in rebuttal to the assertion that European elections could learn from the US election; the fact is that many of the tactics used by the Obama campaign are illegal in Europe, and to put it simply, the European public would hate it.

So, what was Williamson’s opinion when it comes to social media and the European election? Well, it depends on which bit of Europe you’re referring to. Poland? No, some of the politicians may be happy to use these tools, but there is little engagement between the public and the politicians. France? Perhaps, there will certainly be benefits for smaller parties. Denmark? Yes, they have open lists, and therefore individual politicians can use it to increase their presence among a fairly engaged public. The UK? No, people just do not know enough about the European elections, even if it is tweeted about; it needs to be covered by the mainstream media to attract the attention of the general public. After Williamson’s contribution, the panel then took a number of questions, the most interesting of which was related to the lack of political literacy among the British public, and the role social media can play in rectifying this.

The question was asked by Toni Brown (@Thefashioncloud), an author and fashion blogger who is ‘a passionate European’; her view was that social media needs to be used to show people what the benefits of the EU are, how it affects their daily lives, and not focus on the boring aspects of the EU. Brown argued that people will not become engaged with a subject until they understand how it affects them, something which can be seen in Britain, where the vast majority of the public fail to understand what impact Europe has on their everyday life. This is an issue Williamson agreed with, noting that when we trust people, we learn from them; but in the case of the EU, we do not trust the institutions, so it’s better to have individuals who we trust informing us. However, on social media, people congregate to people they agree with. Therefore people who have already decided they disagree with the EU will not be reached.

In conclusion, the question of whether the EU will get a social media election seems to have been met with a resounding no. This is for a number of reasons, namely: the public aren’t that interested, there is a lack of trust, and the tactics seen in ‘social media elections’ such as the US election simply would not work in Europe. However, all is not lost, social media does have a role to play. If used effectively social media can be used to raise awareness, dispel myths, and educate the public on the importance of the EU in general, not just around election time. As Williamson pointed out, the phrase ‘what did the Romans do for us?’ could easily be applied to the EU, and the answer is simple, without the EU the UK would be considerably less powerful and significantly worse off.

The issues raised in this event are strongly related to one of Euclid’s current projects; Reconnecting UK Youth to Europe. It is the aim of this project to inform young people in the UK of the benefits and opportunities the EU can give them, as well as generally increasing the participant’s political knowledge of Europe. Another aspect of this project is to create a youth-led narrative on what young people think of the EU; this is being generated through our Competition, which asks young people to produce a short video explaining ‘how you imagine Europe in 2050?’. The winners of the competition (which is run through Facebook, embracing the social media revolution) will receive a £250 bike, and the chance to present their ideas to MEPs. For more information on the project and the competition, please do not hesitate to contact me at joseph.holt@euclidnetwork.eu

 

Joe

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‘Is this Time Different?’ The 2014 European Parliament Elections

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A few weeks ago, on behalf of Euclid Network, I attended an event – ‘Is this Time Different? The 2014 European Parliament Elections’ – at UCL. The title of this event refers to the slogan for the upcoming European elections, ‘This time it’s different’, and the panel, made up of a politician and two academics, set out to discuss whether these elections really would live up to the rhetoric. The panel was certainly well placed to assess whether these elections could, in fact, be any different from previous European elections, it consisted of Fiona Hall, an MEP since 2004, and a voice from inside the Lib Dem and ALDE camps; Simon Hix, Professor of European and Comparative Politics at the LSE; and Michael Shackleton, Special Professor in European Institutions at Maastricht University, and former Head of the European Parliament Information Office in London.

Before going through the views expressed by these expert speakers, it is worth briefly explaining what it is about this election that promises to make it distinct from those of the past. Essentially, Europe’s political parties will put forward their candidates for the Commission President before the citizen’s vote, then, for the first time, the European Parliament will elect the Commission President. In principle, this development may turn these elections from a ‘second order’ election, traditionally viewed as mid-term feedback for political parties, into a genuine contest between opposing political agendas. As such the European elections in May 2014 may be more political than ever before; transforming the role of political parties, both nationally and on the European level, giving voters a real pan-European political choice, and potentially changing the relationship between the Commission, the Parliament and national governments. That said, this election may change nothing, and it may end up being same as all previous European elections.

So, what did the panel think; would the May 2014 elections mark a new era for European democracy? Fiona Hall was first to address the subject, and immediately questioned whether parties will, in fact, put someone forward as a presidential candidate. As Hall pointed out, MEPs are important people, and they don’t want to go for a job if they think they might lose the contest. Therefore, it is likely that only a few candidates will go for the position of president, and as a result, the contest will not be as competitive as hoped.

Hall next went on to assess how different these elections will be; to put her opinion simply, not much is going to change in the UK. In Britain there is a sense that European elections don’t matter much, as a result, people often either vote for a small party they wouldn’t usually go for, or they submit a protest vote. Furthermore, much of the European debate in the UK is focussed on ‘in or out’, rather than which party or president they would prefer. It was not all negative however, Hall predicted that post-election things may be different, new roles, negotiations and an increase in small parties who will not collaborate could all act to make the European Parliament more political.

Next to tackle the question was Simon Hix, and he decided to represent two views, positive vs sceptical. First, he went with the positive perspective, explaining why these elections could be very different. To start with, Europe has never been bigger news; therefore, people should, hopefully, turn out to vote. In addition to this, national papers are going to look at European politicians more than before; Hix predicted The Observer or The Times could even have a double page spread on potential presidents. However, Hix’s sceptical viewpoint also raised some valid points. Turnout is down, membership of political parties is down, and this election is still viewed as a ‘second order’ election, therefore, people don’t care. Furthermore, echoing what Hall said, it is unlikely the presidential contest will be much of a contest as EPP, Europe’s biggest political party, has already announced it won’t be putting a candidate forward.

Finally, it was Michael Shackleton’s turn. It was briefly suggested that these elections won’t really matter, and that the main parties will try to avoid them in the hope no one will notice them losing to UKIP. However, much of Shackleton’s contribution addressed and dismissed the Centre for European Reform’s assertion that ‘a partisan Commission President would be bad for the EU’ as the European Parliament and the European Council might not work well together if politicised. Shackleton disagreed with this, and pointed to the fact that negotiation is a part of Europe, it’s what happens all day, every day, furthermore, the Commission is already politicised, so this won’t change anything.

The final point made by Shackleton was that the current in/out debate is useless, empty and a waste of time, what we should be debating is whether to vote left or right, as you would do in any other election. The following question and answer session basically just elaborated on some of the earlier points, but the most interesting point made was that, for the first time in a long time, Europe is on the agenda at the same time as a European election. In 2004 the Iraq war was more interesting that elections in Europe, in 2009 it was MP expenses, but now, in 2014 Europe is in the news, and this will hopefully result in greater interest and therefore greater turnout.

However, is the Europe in the news, the right kind of news? It is likely that, once again, the in or out debate will get in the way of real, political decision making; maybe in the future, with a politicised European parliament and genuine election process, we (the UK) will be able to move on from merely thinking of associating the words ‘Europe’ and ‘election’ with an in/out referendum. This problem with political engagement between the EU and UK citizens is something Euclid is addressing in our Reconnecting UK Youth to Europe project.

While political apathy with the EU is an issue throughout Britain, it is particularly prevalent among young people, this project aims to target this marginalised group and help them to engage. Euclid, and our partners Anglia Ruskin University, the British Youth Council and UnLtd, aim to forge an understanding of how Europe influences the daily lives of young people, connect them to policy-makers and politicians in Brussels, and give them a forum to voice their opinions and shape the Europe they want.

If you want to contact me about anything in this post, please email me at: joseph.holt@euclidnetwork.eu

Joe

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Will City-led Revolutions Solve Our Toughest Economic Problems?

ImageOver the past years, Europe has faced tough economic challenges. Like an earthquake, the ongoing sovereign debt crisis shook the European structure to its foundations. While the danger has seemingly passed, the tremors are still felt given public disengagement with European affairs and the centrifugal tendencies of several national governments as an answer to public attitudes.

But can another centralised government-led solution give voice to the concerns of citizens? In Europe, decentralisation is gaining more ground in order to engage citizens with the decision-making processes. Academics also suggest that the answer to our economic concerns and growing disengagement can be found in the way mayors promote innovation and social cohesion. Look at how Boris Johnson changed the face of London’s public transport

At an event in the House of Commons on 31 October 2013, Bruce Katz, Vice-President of the Brookings Institution, argued that our toughest economic problems can be solved by cities. According to Katz, cities are ”pockets of innovation and great social energy, ready to answer the citizen’s concerns and promote growth”. Katz presented his latest book, The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy”, co-authored with Jennifer Bradley. He discussed how a model of “urban revolution” is stirring in America, a revolution that spans across the nation, cities and metropolitan areas. In many such places, pragmatic leaders who govern these cities and metropolises are taking on the big issues that Washington can’t, or won’t, solve. Through this movement, they are reshaping the American economy, as well as addressing its broken political system.

Why does such a movement exists in the US?

As demonstrated by the recent developments in the White House, the US is still experiencing the consequences of the global financial crisis of 2008. In order for growth to be achieved, jobs need to be created under a new political thought process which favours innovation. While the central power structures in the US are paralysed, the metropolitan centres seem to be coming to the rescue. By utilising the local resources, a network of local institutions and leaders seems to be having more success in promoting the development of local infrastructure and creating an outward looking production scheme. At the same time, city-specific foreign direct investments are flowing into the US. In his book, examples of such successful “revolutions” include the green initiatives in Portland and the deconstruction of vacant buildings in Detroit.

Could a similar model have the same benefits for the urban environment, economy and social structures in Europe?

The significance of cities in modern states is – and always has been for that matter – undeniable. Cities are the drivers for growth in every national economy. They contain labour markets and housing markets, produce more than 90% of every country’s GDP and host more than two thirds of their total population. As Prof Katz argued, there is no national economy, but a network of metropolitan economies. The European countries have a different model of politics with central power being shaped differently, but that doesn’t mean that the cities and metropolises do not hold immense possibilities. Networks between cities should be constructed and cooperation between these networks should be forged. The local resources should be used in ways that will promote innovation in Research and Development, Infrastructure, Transport, Energy and ICT. This will lead to a greener, safer and more sustainable urban environment that will boost economic growth. Other smaller cities will then be able to take on their challenges and replicate the breakthrough changes that the metropolises introduce.

Marina

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The 4th KAS-EM EU Briefing

ImageOn 22 October, I attended the fourth KAS-EM EU Briefing, organised by the European Movement UK in association with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. This EU Summit Briefing aimed to discuss all the issues on the EU leaders’ agenda, including the outlook for Europe after the elections in Germany, the prospects for completing a banking union, and the wider reform and crisis response processes throughout the EU and the Eurozone. The meeting was conducted under the Chatham House Rule and therefore no speakers will be identified in the following report.

General points on the Draft Conclusions of the Council

The conversation was initiated by the observation that the Draft conclusions of the Council seem to follow what is being said in UK politics about the single market, the digital economy, SMEs and even the EMU. Does that mean that David Cameron’s agenda is becoming more prominent in EU policymaking? Certainly, but the concerns of the Euro-sceptics remain unanswered.

Banking Union

On the topic of the Banking Union the panel admitted that there is a clear clash of interests that may not be resolved to the UK’s favour: If the Eurozone has to choose between its own interests and the UK referendum, it will definitely prioritise its own agenda. The Fiscal Treaty of December 2011 is an example of this: while the UK was in opposition to this, the Eurozone partners continued nevertheless.

German elections

How strong will the relationship between Angela Merkel and David Cameron be if Merkel forms a coalition with the social democrats? One thing was definitely agreed upon: the SPD is not going to be comfortable in a coalition with Merkel. Of course, they will have demands, which if unanswered, may lead to elections. But a second round of elections might result in the same or even greater strength for the Christian Democrats. In the end, it is the German people that want a coalition, not the politicians and this means that the SPD has to be careful not to break it.

EU parliamentary elections

The question regarding the rise in extreme elements in national political elites and the effect that this might have on the EU parliamentary elections was discussed. Most of the views that were expressed on the issue however were reassuring: even though the crisis is severe, it has not and will not result in war, as has been the case in the past. Apart from some incidents in Greece, the extreme political movements in other European countries do not cross the boundaries of legality. It is more probable that the EU parliament will consist of a higher number of small parties, but not necessarily extreme parties– maybe even a political cleavage of parties that are for- and against- the EU.

Furthermore there is a remarkable difference between the upcoming elections and the elections of 2010. The previous elections were not as significant as those to come next year. The EU parliament now has even more powers and voting matters more. The politicians have to make sure they show that in their electorate.

Information deficit

The UK’s press seems to predominantly hold the view that “Europe is bad”. The question regarding the extent to which this influential role can affect the public’s opinion on the UK’s exit from the EU received optimistic responses from the panel. Only one news agency has outwardly expressed a call for the UK to leave the EU. The attacks in politics by other publications are simply a profitable practise for sales. Furthermore, it seems that pro-EU news agencies are increasing in popularity. It was concluded that progress does exist, even if it is slow.

City of London and EU Membership

The City is one of the major financial centres in the world. It was mentioned that “it is just in the wrong time zone for it to be the financial capital of Europe and Asia”. But it was clearly stated that an exit from the EU may jeopardise the City’s prosperity. If service regulation was left only to France and Germany, the UK’s position as an outsider would be a terrible disadvantage. The City benefits from being inside the EU, as it can affect the decision-making process.

 

Marina

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Social Democracy and the Nation after the Crash

ImageOn the 17th of October, Andrew Gamble discussed his chapter in the book “Progressive Politics after the Crash”, as part of the Ralph Miliband Programme, ‘Nations and Borders’, at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Following the end of the cold war, Perry Anderson expressed four possibilities for the future of socialism: oblivion, trans-valuation, mutation or redemption. The first three are relatively self-explanatory. However, for redemption to occur, he argued that a new crisis would first have to erupt so as to make socialism relevant once more.

The current economic crisis, compared only to the Great Depression, seems to be just such a critical point; yet there are no signs of a return or rebirth of socialism. So far, the Centre-Left seems to hover mainly between mutation and trans-valuation. While the Centre Left talks a lot about social justice and human rights, they don’t have to say a lot about capitalism – as noted from their awkward navigation through the politics of austerity.

“Progressive Politics after the Crash” seeks to explain the stagnant political situation of the Left. Andrew Gamble’s contribution starts by admitting that some of the Left’s assumptions are no longer relevant today. According to him, nationalism was underestimated, while the insistence on replacing capitalism with socialism is unrealistic.

Capitalism has led to a transformation of the electorates into smaller groups, where classes no longer matter. The Centre Left has to respond to the concerns of this fragmented society. So far, he observes, it has accepted the liberal framework and tried to pursue distinctly national agendas, focussing on redistribution, human rights and social justice. But the gap persists between this modern society and the Centre Left’s agenda, leading to further democratic disconnection between the political elites and citizens. He suggests that issues surrounding increasing inequality, social wage cuts and the reduction of living standards need to be revisited and brought to the forefront of the political agenda with a reimagining of household affairs.

He also stressed the need for a change in the Left’s attitude towards global politics: While seeming universal, in reality, socialism has proved to be quite nationalistic. And the truth is that state-level negotiations meet more deadlocks than agreements. Nevertheless, the necessity of the international political economy remains. We can see this from debt-ridden countries, such as Greece, that prefer to endure the pressure of adjustment over the penalties of leaving the system. Therefore, international cooperation is needed in the political discourse of the Centre Left.

In the questions that followed the lecture, the audience was especially interested in the issue of reconnecting the citizens with the political elites, suggesting reforms such as obligatory voting or a revision of party financing. Such reforms, Prof. Gamble argued, meet obstacles from the political forces themselves. On the question of whether the so called grassroots movements that promote social change can help towards this disconnection of citizens and political life, Prof. Gamble answered that while those are certainly constructive, there is still an obstacle that hinders the politicians from taking advantage of them to connect with their electorate.

At the end of the event, I discussed Euclid Network’s work on social innovation with Prof. Gamble , and our innovative projects to bring social issues to the attention of the political elites. He was quite interested in our approach as a way to achieve results. “The social movements that have developed contain a formidable energy, which today’s politics have drawn out. Finding a way to connect the society with the politics will definitely bring that energy back into society.”

Progressive politics after the crash: Governing from the Left by Policy Network is available for purchase here. You can also find lecture podcasts and further information on the Ralph Miliband Programme via the LSE website.

Marina

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British media reporting the EU: A ‘distorting prism’ or an honest reflection of reality?

Last week, on behalf of Euclid Network, I attended an event at Europe House, London – British media reporting the EU: A ‘distorting prism’ or an honest reflection of reality? The aim of this debate was to discuss the way the British press reports on the EU, how this compares to the stance taken by other member state’s press, and to evaluate what impact the media had on public opinion. Britain’s relationship with ‘Europe’ is at a crossroads; an ‘in/out’ referendum is almost guaranteed, and public attitudes will shape the outcome. But what are British attitudes towards the EU? If one is to judge public opinion by the reports in British newspapers then it would seem overwhelmingly negative. In fact, several panellists and audience members at the debate described this negativity and scepticism as “unrivalled by any other press in Europe”. It was this apparent negativity that the debate hoped to investigate with its two questions: “Do the most widely circulated British dailies approach the EU with a negative bias and pre-fabricated agenda?” and “Does the British press reflect or create popular attitudes on the EU?”

The first question was approached by a panel consisting of Bénédicte Paviot, France24; Dylan Sharpe, Business for Britain; Titia Ketelaar, NRC Handelsblad; Jeremy Cliffe, Economist; and J Clive Matthews, Nosemonkey.

There was a consensus among much of the panel that the British media is overly negative towards the EU, it is emotive, and it is often incorrect. It was noted that in many ways, the EU is boring and complex, and the press therefore produces more negative reports because sensationalist Eurosceptic stories are simply more entertaining. But as Jeremy Cliffe pointed out, the Bank of England is a boring, complex institution, but this doesn’t stop the press reporting on it in a civilised and factually correct manner.

This first question also presented some interesting views from panellists looking at the UK press from the outside. Titia Ketelaar, from the Netherlands, and  Bénédicte Paviot, from France, observed that the press in the Netherlands and France is generally more positive than in the UK, and while the Dutch may have similar views to the British regarding the EU, their analysis is more critical than sceptical. However, the biggest difference was in the way these countries engaged with the EU, and their own surprise at how few British reporters are based in Brussels; just 3, down from 6 in 2005. The problem with this is that while Europe may be considered boring and in need of some sensation to make it sell papers, the fact remains that it is hugely important part of British politics that should not be oversimplified, ignored or misreported.

The second question, this time addressed by Anthony Wells, YouGov; Oliver Daddow, Leicester University; Catherine Bearder MEP; Bill Cash MP; and Dr Evan Harris from Hacked Off, led neatly on from the first, exploring whether this negative bias was reflective of British public opinion, or whether it helped shape it.

Anthony Wells provided some insightful information from YouGov, showing that the views of specific papers reflected their readers. Although, perhaps obviously, it is not as black and white as that, people will read a paper they agree with, which will then reinforce their views. However, the point remains that on a subject like ‘Europe’, papers are highly influential. This is where the public gets almost all their information from, and, as discussed earlier, it is overwhelmingly negative. As Catherine Bearder MEP noted, when she is visiting constituents people often know they dislike the EU, but don’t really know why. This suggests a possible issue with a lack of information, or at least reliable information.

Here a general consensus began to emerge, almost surprisingly considering the differences of opinion that existed between some members of the panel. Public education on the important, if sometimes boring, role of the EU needs to be more impartial. This way the public can form their own opinions without relying on the pro/anti EU press. This might not stop sensational Europe stories, reports of banning straight bananas, for example, are always going to sell. However, it would hopefully encourage the press to do a bit more fact checking whilst also helping the public to pick out the fact from the fiction.

With more accuracy, more reporting, and more education, the related issues of negative media reporting and uninformed public opinion could potentially be tackled together.

The conclusions of this debate link in well with one of Euclid Network’s current projects, ‘Reconnecting UK Youth to Europe: Raising Awareness to Foster Civic Engagement’. Please feel free to contact me at Joseph.Holt@euclidnetwork.eu to comment on this post or for more information on the Youth Engagement project.

Joe

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