Adland: speak up in the EU debate

Advertising needs to use its persuasive powers to engage the public in the upcoming referendum.

Adland: speak up in the EU debate

I have worked as an unpaid advisor to the last three prime ministers, always on two subjects: how to tackle tough social issues in practical but inspiring ways, and how to form a more equal and collaborative relationship between citizens and government.

I have worked on Tony Blair’s "giving age", Gordon Brown’s Council on Social Action and David Cameron’s "big society". Last year, I wrote Be Your Own Politician based on my experiences. It was motivated by what many are calling the "democratic deficit". In the UK, this manifests itself in multiple aspects.

Low voter engagement 

A staggering 7.5 million people did not register to vote in the 2015 general election. Our centralised system strangles local democracy – 74 per cent of people say it is important to be able to influence local decision-making, yet only 34 per cent feel they can.

If the lack of democracy is this poor at local level, imagine what it’s like when it comes to our participation in the 28 countries of the European Union. This is perhaps why turnout for European elections in the UK has been consistently below 40 per cent.

The truth is we don’t know enough facts about the EU to weigh up the decision properly. We don’t understand its institutions or the pros and cons of its policies and directives. We’re not even sure how much it affects our sense of identity.

It seems to me that there are many layers to Europe, from the ideological down to the practical, and we need to bear all of them in mind while trying to disentangle them.

The original EU vision

In the 40s and 50s, there was a profound desire for peace and unity after two world wars, from which sprang the original European project.

What has emerged is a common market and trading bloc with clout; a framework for collaboration on cross-border matters, from tackling international terrorism to applying economic sanctions; and home to the euro.

Can we be pro the Europe of culture, of peace, of collaboration, of diversity while being critical of the EU as a set of institutions? I think we can but I don’t hear anyone supporting this at the moment.

In many ways, the issues of Europe are finding the right meeting point between the ideological and the practical.

The passionate ideology of free movement of people across 26 countries has to be set against the reality of two terrorists involved in the Paris atrocities having entered Greece using fake Syrian passports, then travelling freely around Europe undetected. The profound importance of protecting workers from exploitative bosses has to be set against the fact that the European Working Time Directive costs the British economy £4.2 billion a year, according to Open Europe.

It can be argued that yoking together economies of a very different nature under one currency and one set of economic rules is extremely likely to lead to deep-rooted anger between countries, as it has recently between Greece and Germany, thus destroying the original post-World War II vision of a peaceful, collaborative continent.

The phrase "ever closer union" is contained in the first line of the original Treaty of Rome in 1957. Yet we are more "semi-detached" than most EU members. We are geographically an island. We are not part of Schengen. We maintain our own currency. 

How much do we feel part of Europe culturally? How does it relate to our identity? Is the EU poll going to engage us at the level of the Scottish referendum, which saw an 85 per cent voter turnout and debates in community spaces up and down the country?

The EU’s heart is Franco-German. Its economic powerhouse is Germany. Its institutions are in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. They are many and complex, and often not democratic. The European Commission and its president are not democratically elected. The ministers of the Parliament and the Council are elected but supranational. We are one of 28 countries under a qualified majority voting system. We are the most defeated country in EU decisions.

The consequences of leaving

So should we leave? To trade with the EU, we must comply with a large number of the regulations anyway. Do we owe a responsibility to Europe? If we pull out, does it start a domino effect or ring the death knell?

If we, and others, were to leave, how would the old EU be replaced? Is a federation united on certain issues, but sensibly subsidiary in many others, a prize worth having? Or would it be a splintered and weaker set of states prone to less collaboration?

What do we become on Brexit? Little Englanders pulling up the drawbridge? Or citizens of the world, unshackled from a bureaucratic institution that is unable to deliver on its original ideology or deal with the refugee, Greek and terrorism crises?

The journalist Daniel Finkelstein, among others, has said that both outcomes contain large elements of the unknown. So what do we do? 

I have one specific suggestion. Using unbiased and data-rich sources such as David Charter’s excellent Europe: In Or Out?, the advertising industry should harness its talents and provide powerful advertising, with intelligent copy, that argues both cases and engage the public. It is only one ingredient but it could be a potent one.

Paul Twivy is an author and partner at Core Purpose

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