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Basics: Views on ‘Europe’

Video by Anthony Salamone (The University of Edinburgh) setting out some of the factors which contribute to public opinion on the EU.
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Public opinion on the European Union has long been complex in the UK. Over a number of years, opinion polls have shown the dissatisfaction with European integration is higher in the UK than in most other Member States. However, the UK is far from being unique. As this course has underlined, every EU member has its own difficulties with the EU. The discussion in the UK has simply been notably intense and long-running. At different points, the UK’s EU relationship has taken a particularly high-profile position in public debate. One example of this was the UK’s ratification debate on the Treaty of Maastricht in the 1990s.
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Prime Minister John Major encountered great difficulties during the treaty approval process and there were long and protracted debates in Parliament. In the end, treaty ratification was tied to a confidence vote in the government, which was passed by the House of Commons. More recently, the EU became salient again in the UK following the Eurocrisis. Additionally, concerns about migration and debates on the EU in domestic politics eventually led to David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech. This was the start of a process which has resulted in the current EU referendum and the continued prominence of the EU in British public life. Several factors are important to define in order to better understand public opinion on the EU.
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The first question is: What is ‘Europe’? ‘Europe’ is often used as shorthand to refer to anything related to European integration. In reality, it could mean the European Union or other projects, such as the Council of Europe and its related European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, even references to the ‘European Union’ or ‘Brussels’ could mean the European Commission, the Member State governments or the European Parliament. Discussion can sometimes give the impression that the EU is a single, defined entity. However, the European Union is not a unitary actor. It is a collection of states and people whose interests and views differ depending on the circumstances.
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Another question is: How to explain opposition to the EU? This is sometimes called ‘Euroscepticism’. This term is often used in a very broad-brush way. It can refer to people who do not support EU membership or the EU at all. It can also refer to people who support the EU, but do not agree with what the EU is doing at present. Another factor is the role of the UK government in the European Union. The UK government is involved in nearly every major EU policy decision (with the partial exception of some areas where it is opted out, such as the euro). National governments often present different views depending on the audience.
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They may negotiate in the EU one way, but report back to the public in another way. Whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, it is clear that the UK government will continue to play a central part in the process. This leads to the place of the UK Parliament in scrutinising new EU laws and the UK government’s role in making them. Parliamentary committees review EU work to hold the government to account. However, these arrangements are not as strong in the UK as in other EU countries. All of these factors can make it complicated to determine what people actually think about the EU. The EU means many different things to different people and is in a constant state of change.
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Perhaps the one certainty is that debates on European integration will continue for some time.
What are the factors that contribute to public opinion on the EU? Anthony Salamone sets out some of the main points.
(Video/Design by Tim Askew. Voice/Script by Anthony Salamone.)
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