Controversial British Debates

02.03.15 Publication:

It is often tempting to describe Britain’s political and media elite in an Italian manner as La casta. And some of the success of the populist UK Independence Party is based on public resentment of mainstream politicians, just as with the Muovimento Cinque Stelle. But now, especially when they discuss the European Union, I think La Casta is the wrong term. Instead, we should think of them as extra-terrestrials, aliens from another planet.

I don’t just say this because I am instinctively pro-EU. I say it, right now, because the British debate has become increasingly detached from the real world. During the past week, there were three examples of this, one of which, I confess, concerned a new documentary film that I have been involved in. So I will leave that example to last.

The first example came with the release of a new opinion poll by the respected research firm YouGov. This showed the largest majority on record among voters in favour of Britain staying in the EU: 45% said they definitely wanted the UK to remain in the EU, whereas 35% said they would like it to leave.

Now, opinion polls are notoriously volatile, and voters do not really make up their minds until the need to vote comes near. So no one should exaggerate the importance of one poll, especially when no referendum on British membership of the EU has actually been announced (a referendum has simply been promised by David Cameron for 2017, if the Conservative Party leader remains prime minister after our general election in May this year).

Even so, what was striking was how little attention this poll received either in the media or among politicians. On the day it was released, I took part in a BBC TV debate about the EU, presented by one of their senior journalists, and featuring two prominent Eurosceptics. None of them had heard about the YouGov poll. The Eurosceptics weren’t even interested. This wasn’t just because they disagree with the poll’s conclusions: it was because it risks spoiling their main narrative, which is that the European Union is a project favoured by elites but which they claim ordinary voters, especially British ones, are alienated from. The truth, at least in Britain, may in fact be the opposite.

The second example came the following day. Britain’s Office of National Statistics, our version of ISTAT, published new figures showing a big increase in the number of people immigrating into Britain in the year to September 2014. Just as in almost all European countries, immigration is a controversial issue in Britain. But what is different about our controversy is that criticism of immigration has become almost entirely focused on immigration from the EU, and not on immigrants coming from North Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere.

The new statistics showed that the immigration to Britain of non-EU citizens, at 292,000 people in the year to September 2014, was larger than that of EU citizens (251,000), as it also has been throughout the past decade. Yet the response to this report was almost entirely dominated by the issue of the EU’s rules on free movement, and on the UK’s inability to control the flow of EU immigrants as long as it stays inside the EU. Like other EU member states, we retain the ability to control the flow of non-EU immigrants in any way we choose. But that fact is largely ignored. The issue politicians and media want to talk about is the EU.

Which brings me to my third example. For the past two years, I have been executive producer for a new documentary about the crisis in the European Union, of which the director and main author is one of those EU immigrants: the Italian Annalisa Piras, who was also my colleague on our film about Italy in 2013, Girlfriend in a Coma. Our new film, which will be broadcast by the BBC today, Sunday March 1st, is called The Great European Disaster Movie. Essentially, it is a warning about the potential break-up of the EU, if we all continue on our current path. The film argues that it is vital that this break-up should be averted.

The film was proposed to us by the BBC two years ago, and ended up being co-produced by the BBC and the Franco-German channel Arte. It will be broadcast by Sky Italia sometime in April. It is a piece of creative, analytical reportage, about the rise of populist parties, anger over unemployment, and the growth of nationalism.

My reason for mentioning this film is not the specific content. It is the fact that in Britain’s strange debate, this documentary was considered politically controversial. The BBC at first delayed a decision about broadcasting, then decided to shorten the film, and then finally decided it would have to be accompanied by a studio debate in which anti-European voices would dominate. This would provide “political balance”. That debate was recorded earlier this week, on the day of the YouGov poll.

So why is there such a disconnection between the political and media debate, and the concerns and views of ordinary people? Although voters’ opinions on the EU have fluctuated greatly in recent years, one fact has been consistent: they have always rated the EU as a relatively unimportant issue to them, compared with their top concerns about jobs, or incomes, or even immigration.

What I think is happening is that politicians find those real issues hard to grapple with, hard to solve. It is easier for them to argue about the EU, as it is a foreign, alien institution that can be blamed for all sorts of things – including people’s worries about jobs or immigration.

One consequence is that Britain has lost much of its influence in the EU, much of its ability to lead, as others can listen in to our debate. Another consequence is that the debate about Europe during our election campaign will get even more detached from reality.