A large majority of younger voters backed the Remain campaign in the June referendum. One reason for this was surely that they had grown up with the UK as a member of the European Union and saw it as a perfectly normal state of affairs, which required no formal utilitarian justification. The same basic philosophy motivated staff in the European Parliament office in London to promote an initiative in 2004 which is still running to this day.
The office decided to do two things: first, to produce written and audio-visual material that could be used to promote the citizenship section of the national curriculum, explaining how the EU fits into the UK system of governance, and second, to hold one day conferences with teachers, promoting the use of the material. It was an initiative which underlines the space that civil servants can have within a highly political institution to promote their own ideas, and remarkably it worked. Why?
First, great care was taken to ensure that the material was politically neutral. The whole preparatory phase took place under the watchful eye of the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society. Both were willing to give their support and allow their logos to be used only if there was strict impartiality. This was no exercise designed to put the institutions in a favourable light but rather an attempt to explain how the EU works and what the role of the Parliament is within the system.
Second, the inevitable cries of EU propaganda that were heard in the popular press were vigorously countered. This was possible in part because of the respectable British partners that the office was working with but it was also because no point of view was excluded from the material. Nigel Farage was invited to the office to look at the audio-visual material and saw that one of his own UKIP colleagues was a prominent contributor. What was not to like about it? Indeed most MEPs do like the programme, even though it did not originate from any parliamentary body.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the teachers in Britain’s secondary schools and further education colleges liked what they saw and felt that it provided something that they could not find anywhere else. As many as 10,000 teachers have had an opportunity to make use of the material or to attend one of the conferences over the last decade. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially as the conferences also now give them a chance to meet and hear a Member of the European Parliament, explaining his or her role in Brussels.
As the opportunity to promote this initiative diminishes with Brexit beckoning, it seems only fitting to recall what a small number of anonymous officials in a small Parliament office in London have been able to achieve, without fanfare, without great recognition and without the ultimate success of persuading a reluctant nation that the EU is not such an unusual beast but a part of the way we governed this country for more than forty years.
Michael Shackleton has been involved in the European Parliament since 1981, most recently as Head of the European Parliament Information Office in London (2009-2011). He has published a number of articles and books over the years, including (as co-author) the first 8 editions of The European Parliament.
Editor: Eliot Scott-Faulkner