I seldom hear much enthusiasm about European politics. It seems particularly difficult to get people excited about the EU and during the Euro list selection campaign, I found that even politically active people were largely uninterested in European issues. It is hardly surprising, then, that the UK turnout in 2009 was less than 35%.
One attempt to tackle this problem comes from the EU in the form of subsidies offered to MEPs who bring visitors from their constituencies to see the European Parliament. I was lucky enough to join one of these trips last week and I found it to be really enjoyable and informative. Not only did we get a chance to look around the European Parliament, but we were also told how the various institutions work and what they do as well as getting a chance to ask all our questions. During the three days we spent in snowy Brussels, we covered topics such as the history of the EU, the Eurozone crisis, the CAP, Scottish Independence, the work of an MEP and their staff, the Single Seat campaign, the budget and many, many more.
The subsidies have been criticised by the press as taxpayer-funded holidays but I welcome them as an effective way to educate activists and to stimulate more campaign activity back home. I also encourage party members to get in touch with their MEPs about joining one of these trips because not only did our group have a fantastic time, but we all left feeling much more informed about what happens in Brussels and ready to take pro-EU messages to the doorstep which, in turn, could help generate more interest amongst the public.
Rather than slating the subsidies that allow us to go and learn more about the European Parliament, would we not be better served looking at why they are needed in the first place? It was the view of our guide that the UK electorate don’t understand enough about the European Union to be interested. He considered the problem to be largely down to the press but if Euroscepticism sells, how can we blame the media for churning out so much of it?
The Liberal Democrats are best placed to campaign on Europe and, as a pro-European party, we should be leading the way on positive European campaigns, especially in Scotland where our relationship with Europe is very topical through the Independence debate. I hope that the energy we generate north of the border will gather enough momentum to travel south and start to excite the electorate ahead of 2014 because it is my view that the recent successes of UKIP are no doubt more down to a misinformed public than a genuine appetite to leave the European Union.
* Jade O'Neil was a European list candidate for Scotland and blogs at Misinformed Musings. She proposed the motion on protecting the safety and rights of sex workers at Scottish Conference.