They say knowledge is power and in our current turbulent political times we need all the knowledge we can get. So as we wrestle as a nation with the question of Brexit how much do we really know about the European Union and its inner workings?
In 2015 a study conducted by the London School of Economics found that Brits were the least knowledgeable about the EU across all member states.
Fast forward a year to the day after the 2016 Referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union and Google Trends revealed that the second most searched for phrase of the day was “What is the EU?”
Watering down the complexities of decades of international treaties, trade agreements and intricate European law into a simple yes or no answer in a referendum felt like folly at the time and even more so with the benefit of hindsight.
But what about now? More than 3 years later and the European Union - as well as the ins and outs of our membership - are a frequent and prominent topic of discussion amongst the British public. There is now a heightened general interest and even desire to consume news and information on issues that perhaps before the referendum were seen as too technical and tedious to be tantalising. A quick internet search and you can now find detailed research and well-argued opinion on anything from trade tariffs to intricate Westminster legislature processes. We are watching our politicians make new laws like never before. As one tweet so eloquently put it: ‘Parliament is the new Love Island.’
A well informed electorate is always good news, and there are plenty of excellent fact checking tools unless their information comes from ‘fake news’. This is a problem that has plagued recent political discourse at global level and we are yet to learn the lessons, particularly those lessons from the 2016 referendum which has become mired in the scandal of data misuse. Whichever side of the debate you are on we are all having to check where our information comes from and how reliable it is. In today’s busy world, where so many things compete for our attention, checking everything we read just isn’t realistic and allows those who want to exploit us to get away with it more easily.
It isn’t helpful that our own government isn’t willing to tell us vital information which would help people make up their minds. MPs have had to step in this week to ensure that the preparations for a no deal Brexit are published, the so called Operation Yellowhammer documents.
In amongst this swirling maelstrom of news I had the pleasure last week of welcoming a group of visitors from the North East to the European Parliament. Fuelled by a desire to find out more, they wanted to have a first-hand learning experience of how the EU works, what its institutions do, and an overview of the various political groups that form every five years. Our fantastic visitors’ service and parliamentary clerks were happy to oblige and I joined them as they toured the hemicycle debating chamber. The discussion that always follows such trips is a heartening reminder of how knowledge can positively transform a debate.
In my time representing the North East in the European Parliament, I have welcomed many such visitors groups. However, this time around, it felt like more than just a visit. My constituents came to Brussels seeking knowledge and used what they learned to show that there are still those in the North East who believe in this ambitious project which has brought peace to our continent, prosperity to our regional economy and endless possibilities for our younger generations. Yes, it isn’t perfect but if you have the facts at your fingertips you will know where improvement has to be made.
As Parliament is now suspended in an unprecedented move to suppress debate perhaps we all have a duty to get informed about the big issues of the day. In the three years since the referendum I can see this happening already. It is only with the facts behind us that we can hold governments to account. Knowledge really does have power.