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Europe: How do we make our minds up?

It’s a couple of years since I moaned in this column how debates over the European Union are like arguing about the possibility of life on Mars. By that I meant we’ve plenty of opinions between us but not much in the way of reliable background knowledge.

Little has changed since then; expect that we’re to have a referendum on EU membership, which makes it likely to be one of the most ill-informed constitutional decisions in living memory.

People throw facts and figures at me from both sides yet I’m not sure if I believe half of it.

It’s not as though we’re really up to speed on the basic stuff. For example, can you name the number of EU member states or say how many MEPs we send to Strasbourg?

The truth is that we Brits don’t get Europe, either as a concept or an institution. As a result, we’re inclined to think that it doesn’t matter – and that would be a mistake.

Our perceptions have been fed a staple diet of media stories about straight bananas and whatnot. But who complains about butter-mountains and milk-lakes these days? Certainly not farmers who prospered from intervention prices compared to today’s skinflint supermarket regime.

What we now call the European Union started as a post-war arrangement aimed at avoiding future armed conflict. The idea was to make social and economic institutions so integrated as to ensure that falling out between member states was in no-one’s interests.

It’s clearly morphed into something less noble since then, but my experience is that the folks who shout loudest about leaving the EU seldom have a sufficient grasp of the stakes involved.

I’m personally undecided as to whether membership has been a good thing overall but I’m not convinced that it is the great force for evil that some of the exit brigade would have me believe.

Not do I get enthused when people start rattling on about ‘sovereignty’. What does that even mean in this day and age? What use was sovereignty when the global financial system went into virtual meltdown? It wasn’t the EU that dragged us into military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq either.

We can already see that it’s partisan loyalties that are driving opinion. Voting will be about supporting the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. It’s only a matter of time before the respective camps start producing celeb endorsements.

Next month, Chancellor George Osborne will present his budget to Parliament. We can expect his pronouncements to be followed by a media barrage of information and graphics showing how the various measures affect us all.

Call me naïve, but surely it is not beyond the wit of notionally impartial broadcasters to provide us the same kind of thorough but objective analysis when it comes to the impact of staying in or leaving the EU.

Then again, with so many of us having already made their minds up, why would we want to be confused with facts?

Healthy outcomes go unreported

There’s an old joke about the reporter who went home without filing a review of a new play because the theatre burnt down.

You kind of get the impression that the same selective dynamic might have been at work over press reporting of an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study which recently looked into UK health service quality.

The findings concluded that the NHS in Wales appears to be performing no better or worse than the rest of the UK.

Political reaction in Wales to these findings was fairly predictable. Strangely however, and despite the coverage given to the previous political furore which saw Prime Minister David Cameron describing the English-Welsh border as “a line of death”, not a word of this official rebuttal appeared in a single national newspaper.

Thus demonstrating, as ever, that it’s not so much a case of who makes the news but who owns it.

Fight or flight

Like many other Welsh families, we tend to use Bristol airport more often than Cardiff when setting off abroad. The reason, it has to be said, is a much wider choice of available destinations.

Cardiff clearly needs a competitive edge to attract custom to this side of the Severn estuary. The UK government’s aim to devolve Air Passenger Duty (APD) to Wales – which could then be abolished - might be just the ticket.

There’s been a very poor reaction in Bristol to this scenario. They estimate that their own regional economy could lose out substantially with 1,500 jobs going in the next decade.

Figures like £840m lost income are being bandied about so you can understand why a campaign has been mounted to get the decision stopped.

I wish them luck but I think they’ve set off on the wrong foot in emailing me to support “fair flights for the South West”.


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