Britons, MPs suffer a ‘communication deficit’ on EU affairs

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The UK suffers from a communication deficit regarding its in/out referendum pledge, with parliamentarians failing to inform their electorate, who lack very basic knowledge of EU affairs, writes Resul Umit.

Resul Umit is PhD Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna.

When James Wharton, the backbench Conservative MP for Stockton South, proposed a legislation leading to a referendum on the membership of the United Kingdom (UK) to the European Union (EU) against the wishes of his prime minister, he must have envisaged some problems on the way of his move. However, the question proposed for the referendum shows that he did not expect the latest problem arising due to the communication deficit in the EU affairs.

The UK, as a member state, reconsiders its membership status to the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron promises an in-or-out referendum by the end of 2017, subject to political conditions. However, backbenchers, who do not want to wait that long and reject the conditionality of the promise, have gone ahead with a “private members’ bill” and started the legislative process for the “European Union (Referendum) Bill 2013-14”.

As a part of this process, the Electoral Commission has recently completed its work on the proposed referendum question: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”. Having interviewed numerous members of the British society to find out whether the question is clear and impartial, the Commission has observed that not everyone is aware of the fact that the UK is already in the EU. Therefore, the question needs to be reformulated accordingly.

This appeared to shock a number of British elites as some of their fellow citizens of the country, a member of the EU for over 40 years, do not know anything about a Union that has been deeply affecting their lives. Prime Minister Cameron once estimated that “almost half of all the regulations affecting our businesses come from the EU”. Although the percentage changes from one member state to another and there is not an agreed-upon figure for any country, we can say that Mr Cameron’s assessment is not far off the truth.

This whole situation clearly points out to a communication deficit. On the one hand, some citizens have not heard of a fact. On the other, some politicians are not aware of the obliviousness in the society. This communication problem is not particular to a referendum question or a country. It is deeply rooted in the so-called “democratic deficit” of the EU in general, and particularly in the way the members of parliament (MPs) behave within the EU affairs.

There are thousands of intergovernmental bodies and any state is typically a member of several of these bodies. An ordinary citizen does not have to know all about them. This is why they delegate some of their rights to their political representatives.

Parliaments have many functions, which can be grouped into two: those related to government and those related to citizens. In this sense, for instance, government-related functions include scrutiny and legislative tasks while citizen-related functions cover representation and communication. This crucial role of communicating the political matters to citizens is thought to rest on the shoulders of the participants of representation; namely the individual MPs, political parties and their groups in the parliament, and the parliament as a whole. As communication is a two way process which also necessitates listening and understanding, individual members of parliament have a considerable advantage and thus responsibility compared to the institutional representatives such as parties and parliament.

Communication is a fundamental part of the representative role of parliamentarians. They need to engage in an effective communication with their electorates. It is important not only for the MPs to learn the interests and concerns in their constituencies to voice in the parliament but also for those very interests and concerns to emerge. In order for citizens to form beliefs, ideas, and interests that will later be represented by their MPs, they need to be informed about competing choices in the political agenda. If there is no belief, idea, or interest to be represented, the basic principle of representative democracy would be damaged.

Despite being fundamentally important, scarce but existing evidence shows that communication of EU affairs has been largely ignored by the parliamentarians in the EU. They have so far concentrated rather on the government-related functions. Establishment of specialized European affairs committees in member states, cooperation of these individual committees, and increase in their ability and rule are the important examples of this concentration.

As long as parliamentarians are not willing to involve communication of EU affairs within their constituency work, public will continue to lack even the very basic knowledge of EU affairs while politicians will never know their constituents well enough to formulate a simple question that they can understand about the EU.

Therefore, any attempt to find a remedy for the democratic deficit in the EU needs to take the communication deficit into account. The incentives for MPs to communicate EU affairs and the institutional constraints on these incentives deserve a closer attention from both practitioners and theoreticians of politics.

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