Worrying lessons from Iraq for the EU debate
No major editorialising here (to avoid more pointless squabbles, more than anything), but it must be said that I find it rather difficult to understand how more and more Americans seem to be believing that Saddam Hussein had links to al Quaeda - 64% and rising. 47% think Saddam was directly involved in planning the September 11th attacks, and 44% think the hijackers were Iraqi. 36% still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the coalition invaded, despite admissions from the invasion's leaders that there were none.
Now I know that this old report is from the BBC - supposedly a biased and anti-American news source - and that the UN is also supposedly useless, but I still find claims of links extremely unlikely. The fact that there have been arguments against links coming from respected and expert sources for so long, and yet an ever-increasing number of people seem to believe the connections were there, simply makes me dispair.
This is, of course, a major problem of political discourse worldwide. As so few people are genuinely interested in politics, the first opinion they hear - coming from a source they respect or trust - seems generally to be the one they sign up to. Whether there is supporting evidence or not.
This is precisely why EU-sceptics are so up in arms about the BBC's supposed pro-EU bias (which is just, like, their opinion, man), and why those of us who are pro-EU are so worried about the dominance of Rupert Murdoch's anti-EU newspapers. Once an opinion is foisted on an unsuspecting public, it is well nigh impossible to pursuade them to think again - largely because they simply aren't interested enough to be bothered.
The EU has (justifiably, in many cases) been the butt of many jokes in the British media over the last thirty-odd years. There has been corruption, often on worrying scales. There have been particularly awful policies (the Common Agricultural Policy being the prime example). These all make far better, more eye-catching news stories than "EU membership has attracted investment into Britain from the Far East" or "now that we're in the EU it's far easier to nip off to Paris for the weekend or the Costa del Sol for your hols".
People are more interested in the bad news than the good - it's part of that same, entirely natural, reaction which sees traffic slow down after a car crash so that everyone can get a good look. This also naturally means that they are also far more likely to remember the bad news.
On top of this, a number of Eurosceptic voices have been shouting very loudly about the dangers of further integration, and of the bureaucratic meddling in British affairs. Most of these opinions are based on a particular reading of some kind of truth, but the fact that they are just opinions is lost on most people. Meanwhile, the pro-EU camp has been somewhat more muted in publicising the benefits of membership, and has mostly been left picking up the pieces and trying to argue against an already formed hostile public opinon.
On the major issues (it is, after all, practically impossible to defend the CAP or corruption), the defence of the EU has never been entirely convincing - consisting mainly of "well, it's like that now - yes - but we're reforming the way the thing works, then it'll all be fine". It is easy to see why many people would react with "why bother reforming? Why not just pull out altogether if it doesn't work properly?" It's the "if it's broke, chuck it" attitude - a far easier (if usually more expensive) option than "if it's broke, fix it".
But in any case, even on those issues where the Eurosceptic case is weak (which, sadly, are never as eye-catching as tales of corruption and agricultural wastage), the fact that the hostile message is usually the first to reach the general public makes it well nigh impossible for pro-EU voices to get their side of the story a fair hearing. If Americans continue to believe there were links between Saddam and Osama after even Donald Rumsfeld denies that there were, how the hell are the pro-EU lot going to convince a sceptical public of the benefits of closer integration?