Accessibility is great, but lose the jargon

EMMANUEL Macron, a refreshingly frank head of state, said at the weekend that France probably would have voted “Frexit” had there been a referendum last year.

Personally I’m not sure I agree, but it struck a tone with the debate, especially in England. If he had said “zut alors, we’re forever European” he would have closed minds, where he came across more as a sympathetic friend with an interest in fixing our problems.

National header

First published in The National, 24 January 2018

During his presidential campaign, Macron was clear that the EU needed dramatic reform, and to give him his due, he’s thrown himself head first into proposing new ideas.

Since I was elected I’ve spent most of my time explaining and clarifying how the EU functions and how it works for Scotland, especially in the run-up to the referendum in 2016. I was up against an industrial-scale spin machine, shocking political complacency at Westminster and a public that struggled to raise much interest. It is telling I’ve had the most interest in what I do since the EU referendum, whereas before it was more a benign indifference.

It is important to remember that in Scotland, Remain won the EU referendum, and handsomely so. But it was a hard win. There was a poison in the atmosphere, a triumphant demagoguery whereby every wrong, every slight, every injustice was somehow either the EU’s fault, or would be solved by leaving the EU. The bigots took unfettered delight in using the referendum as an excuse to unleash their hateful opinions, polishing them with the veneer of “legitimate concerns”. The spivs and opportunists wheeled out the billboards, the nonsensical lamppost signs – the bus – knowing from experience that they wouldn’t be called out on their actions, and would be invited on the most prestigious TV and radio stations under the guise of “balance”. It’s exhausting, trying to play Inaccuracy Whac-A-Mole, but the alternative is … well … the alternative is a big red bus with “£350 million a week” on the side.

Since the referendum, I’ve been heartened by hearing how many folk are getting interested in the workings of the EU. The intent is there, and it’s brilliant! But heaven knows it ain’t always easy.

For example, lately folk have been getting in touch asking me to help them apply for a “European passport” under Regulation 1417/2013. If only I could. Regulation 1417/2013 relates to a travel document called a “laissez-passer” issued to staff working in EU institutions. Yes, there is a provision for the laissez-passer to be issued to “special applicants” – but that tends to be family members of the employees or those on long-term postings outside of the EU. It’s a very simple and very easily misunderstood distinction.

Ironically, part of it is because the EU tries so hard to be accessible and open! Not just physically, although I do heartily recommend the various parliamentary tours. Regulations and Directives and Explanations of Votes are all there, online and free to view. That makes finding what you need not so much a “needle in a haystack” situation as finding a needle in several haystacks, each with its own sub-haystacks and extensive briefings.

To be fair to the hard-working tech team of the parliament, www.europarl.europa.eu/portal/en is very user-friendly and has all kinds of primers and guides, as well as live streams and news updates. But if you want to know how to keep your EU citizenship – well, that’s where your MEPs come in. We go to the meetings, make the speeches, nudge our colleagues to vote a certain way, and then we give you, our constituents, the facts and updates as and when.

While sometimes I have to make a conscious effort to make sure I’m not using EU jargon, I’m always happy to translate or clarify, and while I get hundreds of emails every day, I do encourage folk to keep in touch. That’s also why I make my weekly updates as straightforward as possible, along with the links that make sure you can check the stories yourself without taking what I say as given.

Perhaps it’s the EU. Perhaps it’s us. Perhaps we need to start thinking about how we hone our everyday research skills in today’s modern world where there’s a wealth of information at our fingertips, but we need to upskill and inform our national debate.