Citizens of Europe united in ignorance of treaty


It's not simply an Irish issue - the gap between Europe's citizens and what they know about the Lisbon Treaty is a big one, writes Jamie Smyth, European Correspondent, in Brussels.

BY NOW, most Irish people have probably heard about the Lisbon Treaty. They may not fully understand it but they certainly know it exists and they have the opportunity to cast their vote on June 12th in favour or against.

Media attention generated by the referendum campaign and a succession of public meetings have raised the profile of the treaty. There is also plenty of information available to help decode what even EU enthusiasts admit is a complex document.

But what about the rest of Europe's 490 million-odd citizens: are they equally well-informed about an EU treaty that will change how the union takes decisions and the type of policies that it will pursue on their behalf?

According to an opinion poll by the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the debate seems to be passing most Czech citizens by.

Asked whether they knew what the term "Lisbon Treaty" meant, 44 per cent of respondents said they didn't have a clue; 37 per cent said they had heard about it but didn't know what it meant; 16 per cent said they knew something about it; and 3 per cent said they knew everything about it. An alarming 48 per cent said there was no information about the treaty while just 12 per cent said there was enough or almost enough information available.

In Lithuania, the story is similar, with 73 per cent of people polled early this year saying they knew nothing about the treaty. When the results were published the government hastily organised nine information seminars before members of parliament ratified the text in April.

Building up a comprehensive picture of the level of knowledge about the treaty among Europe's citizens is difficult. The European Commission decided not to ask any questions about Lisbon in its regular Eurobarometer surveys, which gauge attitudes on a range of topics. Previous surveys, which monitored public reaction to the draft EU constitution, produced unflattering results and, with tensions high during ratification of Lisbon, it was decided not to ask the question.

Even enthusiastic Europeans, such as German MEP and chairman of the parliament's constitutional affairs committee Jo Leinen, admit to an information deficit. "There is a huge gap between the citizens and what they know about the EU, the European treaties and the focus of European unity. Unfortunately that gap is hardly reduced in the last years even after the shock of the double No's in France and the Netherlands against the constitution," says Leinen, who warns that ratifying a treaty without adequate information could lead to alienation and opposition to Europe.

In Hungary, members of parliament must have struggled to know what the treaty was when they ratified it just four days after EU leaders signed it. Hungary's parliament voted 325-5 on December 17th to adopt the treaty, with 14 abstentions.

"While there are often heated debates between the parties here in Hungary's parliament . . . there is fundamental agreement on the question whether Hungary's stance is to co-operate with European integration," said Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.

Such dedication to the European project is no doubt worthy but Hungary's eagerness to be first to ratify the treaty gave ammunition to eurosceptics, who allege that passing the treaty through parliaments is a strategy to keep citizens in the dark.

"There is no real debate in Denmark and no real coverage in the media and if you ask most MPs they haven't read it," says the veteran Danish eurosceptic MEP Jens Peter Bonde. "If we would have had a referendum people would have read the treaty. You would have been able to go to the post office and get a copy but people know nothing."

EU commissioner Margot Wallstrom, who is responsible for communicating Europe to citizens, says it is up to EU states to communicate the treaty to their citizens regardless of the ratification procedure.

"I cannot say what each of them has been doing but I did notice a lot of media coverage in some countries before and during their parliamentary ratification processes - Austria springs to mind, for example, there was an intense debate there and much media coverage," she said.

A straw poll of colleagues in the EU press room shows media coverage and public debate has been limited in most EU states, except for the few days that the treaty passes through parliament.

"Populations of course show fairly little interest in long and very detailed legal documents, whether these are presented at the national or the EU level. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that the EU populations generally have a rather low degree of knowledge about the content of the Lisbon Treaty," says Sara Hagemann, of the think-tank European Policy Centre in Brussels, who warns that the EU needs strong public support to act effectively.

But evidence suggests that in most EU states knowledge of Lisbon and the union remains very low. Given this, perhaps the Government's decision to hold a referendum should be greeted as a vital tool to educate the people.