Thursday, August 26, 2004

Don't ask silly questions

Confirming its reputation as the most grown-up part of the newspaper, the business section of The Daily Telegraph today offers a report about the contract for compiling Eurobarometer, the EU social opinion survey, having passed into British hands.

The survey, established by the European Commission 30 years ago to inform its policy-making, will be conducted by the market research group Taylor Nelson Sofres for the next four years under a 50m (£33.8m) contract.

However, the more interesting part of the report was a "retrospective" on previous Eurobarometer surveys, with a sideswipe at the findings over term. According to the Telegraph, "the survey suggests that the most democratic decision of all would be for the European Union to disband itself entirely".

Since the 1970s, more than half the population of the EU's member states have told Eurobarometer that they would feel either indifferent or very relieved if the EU was scrapped tomorrow. Of the Britons asked last year, only 16 percent said they would feel sorry if the EU ceased to exist.

The survey showed last December that less than half the EU population now supports the EU project. Earlier this year it showed that, for the first time in 20 years, there are as many people strongly against the UK's membership as there are in favour of it.
The most fascinating question though is what happens when Eurobarometer gets answers the commission does not wish to hear. The answer is quite simple: when the proportion of Britons interested in European affairs fell from 35 percent in 1975 to just under ten in 1994, the series was suddenly scrapped.

In fact, the Telegraph says, "those Eurobarometer series which provide the most EU-unfriendly conclusions suffer a suspiciously short life".

Another example is the one that tracked the number of people who would describe themselves as European, as well as their own nationality. This lasted just two years, from 1990-1992. It was pulled after it transpired that more than half those asked said they would never contemplate such an idea. In the UK, 71 percent said they never considered themselves European.

Similarly, Eurobarometer's survey on the single European currency also had an unhappy two-year life, after the number in favour of the euro was swiftly overtaken by those against it. The survey was cancelled in 1997, two years before the currency was given the go-ahead.

Clearly, the commission, which funds the survey (with money from the taxpayers of member states) has a very focused idea of what it needs to know. And, equally clearly – it appears - the one thing Eurobarometer mustn't do is ask silly questions.

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