Saturday 28 August 2010

Spin, Damn Spin, and Statistics*

The latest Eurobarometer is out (PDF), charting the changes in public opinion in the EU (plus a few non-member states) over the last six months. (For some reason I imagine it delivered phone-directory-like, in a plastic coated bundle across Brussels and posted out to rare subscribers). I wasn't going to comment on it, because while I think the Eurobarometers are good for showing trends and indications of public opinion, I distrust reading into such polls as support for X policy or Y general philosophical outlook on the EU (or anything else, for that matter).

So Eurobarometer Day arrives (it's a public holiday in La Réunion, you know), and bloggers, Tweeters, and perhaps even journalists, look into the entrails of public opinion, to divine the way forward. Support for the EU is down by an average of 6% (42%, down from 42%; distrust now at 47%): proof that the public's patience with the EU project is approaching its end, say Eurosceptics. But distrust in national governments is at 66%, compared to a 47% distrust in the EU, say opponents (distrust in national parliaments averages at 62%). Now, the sharp drop in support for the EU is a concern - and indeed, the very low levels of trust in national institutions should be of great concern, given the (thankfully on the whole so far limited) rise in extreme right-wing rhetoric - but it's hard to say exactly what should be done about it. Because it's a steep drop, sudden, the reasons must be recent. Is it the Eurozone crisis (and does it mean people want more/less co-ordination, or were just disappointed/disillusioned with the heads of state/government arguing and hesitating over a solution?) or do they expect the EU to do more/less/something different to what its doing now? Is it the start of a trend, or purely a reaction to current events? We just don't know.

It's impossible to say, because the Eurobarometer is trying to measure satisfaction, trust, and concern for certain issues in people's lives. So it is by definition, vague. We can only say that there are certain issues that people want addressed, and that they are open to European co-operation on these. Beyond that, policy makers and supporters will have to make the cases for their ideas and try and win support for them. We can't tell if the EPP, PES or even the EFD would win the EP elections on their policy platforms (or even what theoretical policy platform would win), so let's stop pretending that this Eurobarometer is proof for support for X.

So, given that my take on the Eurobarometer, was "I don't think we can take much from this", I wasn't really going to write anything about it. But then I saw this post by Open Europe, criticising the Commission for holding up the Eurobarometer results as proof of support for stronger economic governance, and it annoyed me. Strange, perhaps, since I agree with Open Europe that the results cannot be read to automatically translate into support for economic governance, but the whole subsequent argument - that if the question of Commission scrutiny of national budgets, or of economic governance had been asked, then the opposite would most likely be the case - got to me.

That's right, instead of basing policy on survey questionaire results, we should act instead on what the results might have been like had other questions been asked. Not exactly an improvement, in my opinion.

However, I doubt that questions such as "should there be more economic governance" or "should there be an EU tax" would necessarily be very revealing. After all, the term "economic governance" hasn't been defined yet, so the responce is hardly going to reveal much in the way of support for or opposition to different forms of economic governance. And what sane person would say that asking "do you think there should be another tax", independent of specifics, context or a public debate of the advantages and disadvantages would produce a result which would provide a good basis for taxation policy? (Yet note the useful spin that can be generated for attacking the spin of another party, while suggesting that other vague and hypothetical questions would have produced your favoured result...).

This use of statistics - and worse yet, theoretical statistics - is what annoys be about these types of polls.** So while "only 26%" favour EU action (the highest percent, compared to national governments, the USA and the IMF***), can't tell us whether we should integrate more, or disintegrate more when it comes to economic policy (or how to do either), it does show that there is room for the arguments of closer integration (or the opposite) to be made.

In other words, let's debate our options, rather than look to the statistical entrails of Europe for a modern mandate from heaven. If you asked me, we'd be at least 46% better off if we did.

* Sorry for the bad pun of an over-used cliché. It was all I could think of as a title.

** And survey questioners. If you answer them, they can steal your soul, you know.

*** If you really want to know, the institutions people think are most able to tackle the crisis are: EU (26%), IMF (14%), USA (7%), G20 (14%), National governments (19%), None (6%) [not an official option], Other (1%) [not an official option], Don't Know (13%). So a nice spread of results allowing people to read into them what they want. Though I doubt that anyone running on a "Don't Know" ticket will be elected any time soon.


  1. Eurocentric,

    In my view, Open Europe could not resist the urge to find fault with the European Commission, since the lobby group consistently tries to create the impression of a 'Brussels', ruled by 'unelected bureaucrats', in the process of stealing all the ancient freedoms of Englishmen, over-regulating the United Kingdom, extraditing innocent Brits to corrupt foreign courts of law, crushing every inhabitant of Great Britain by extortionate contributions to the budget, using the funds in corrupt and dubious manners etc.

    My exaggerations are minimal.

    Interestingly, UK based Open Europe, which usually argues from a narrow British (City backers) viewpoint, did not comment on the unique political climate in Great Britain, the gulf between rulers and voters it has so diligently tried to deepen and widen.

    Given the level of trust in different organisations, the tenor of what the Commission chose to highlight in its press release was fairly reasonable.

    The Eurobarometer results are public, for all to see, so Open Europe's presentation feels contrived.

    If the EU had not arrived at convincing measures to counter the economic and fiancial crises in May 2010, it may have something to do with the complexity and magnitude of the challenges, and with the fact that economic policy still is in the hands of national governments (at EU level, the European Council and the Council).

    You are quite right about the need to discuss EU politics and policies in more exact terms than the rough indications given by the Eurobarometer questions and answers, but they still offer some pointers towards solutions.

  2. I've no problem with Open Europe critising the Commission, and I think that it's right that the Commission is spinning the best possible view from the statistics (as most organisations and governments tend to). However, suggesting that bad questions, asked in a hypothetical version of the survey, would back up Open Europe's position credibly, and that the Commission still doesn't "get it" - "it" being Open Europe's message, which wasn't mentioned in the poll's questioning - is spin in itself. And the spin and counter-spin was getting to me.

    I'm afraid I can't see what pointers we can glean from the poll, except that people generally say they don't know their EU citizenship rights, and, if subsequently asked, wouldn't mind knowing more. Likewise, the public are concerned about the deficit, and want the deficits to be reduced, though at the same time, they also say that government spending can stimulate jobs. I can't help feeling that it's only one step up from a ouija board...

  3. ("I think that it's right that the Commission is spinning the best possible view" - I mean that it's right of Open Europe to point out that it's spin).

  4. Eurocentric,

    I have posted two entries today, which give more room for discussion and references to sources than the blog comments.

    Both discuss the Eurobarometer results, one on UK public opinion, another on why I think that Open Europe blew it, if it is a legit defender of economic reform and functioning markets, that is.

  5. diversity of opinion is appreciated and Open Europe has the liberty to spin the results the way they want.

  6. True, but it's a pity that the Commission and Open Europe feel that they have to spin the Eurobarometer results.

  7. This really is a massive indication that the EU needs greater democracy. The spinning of statistics by both pro- and anti-Europeans is leaving us in a situation where the governed and governors alike don't know what to think about the bigger EU picture. An elected European Commission could replace the Eurobarometer and would invalidate the biggest reason for euroscepticism.