“What has the EU ever done for us?”: Public communication in Hauts-de-France

These advertisements were in every train station I passed through last week in Nord-pas-de-Calais, the area of Hauts-de-France (Upper France) known for Agincourt, the Somme battlefields, and the Calais refugee camp. The ads are paid for by the Hauts-de-France regional government, and tell you exactly what the European Union has contributed to the area: €219 million for science and research, €100 million for business, €59 million for youth training. Even on the train departure board at Arras, the regional capital, there was a little sticker explaining “Europe engages [or ‘commits to’] Nord-pas-de-Calais”. I looked up the slogan later and the ads are part of an EU awareness campaign, “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” (“My Europe, My Everyday”), that the Hauts-de-France region launched today, 29 October: every Saturday, the campaign will go to a different town or city in the region, set up a stand and tell people about what the EU has done for their area.

I have been fantasising about how the EU referendum in the UK might have gone if local governments in England and Wales had run campaigns like this. I’m not even fantasising about a magically different result (j/k of course I am), but just about what it would have been like to have this kind of conversation, actually talking about the pros and cons of the EU, instead of vague gesturing about the NHS and business, and racist incitement about immigration.

Sometimes in the UK you’ll see a small EU flag on something that has received European funding. But I have never seen signs like this, and during the referendum, the Remain campaign never gave a clear, loud statement about the benefits of the EU instead of the risk of leaving it. The Remain message that I heard most was “It will be bad for businesses and London banks” – because post-austerity that’s really the message that resonates with people – and “Immigrants: sometimes not that bad really? (although obviously we all want less of them)”. Seeing the “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” campaign made me realise how frightened and small-c conservative the Remain campaign came across, and how far the conversation in England has gone away from talking about reality, instead of wishes: I have heard nothing from the Westminster government either before or since the referendum about EU science funding, community development funding, social funding… (I say England and Westminster because the Scottish government has been much more on top of this, and I’m not aware enough of the conversation in Wales and Northern Ireland to be able to say.)

I suspect the Hauts-de-France campaign is in part a response to the Brexit vote – that someone in the local government went “oh merde, we need to talk to people” – but I still think it’s a really solid piece of public communication. The activity and benefits of a big international government body like the EU are hard to visualise clearly, but “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” gives clear demonstrations of exactly what the EU has done to improve people’s lives in the region. This was almost completely missing, and is still missing, from the way England is talking about the EU now. In fact I was a bit shocked when I first saw the ad in Arras train station, because it was just so jarring to see a public government sign with a warm and optimistic answer to the question, what has the EU ever done for us?

Now I definitely agree with criticisms of some ways the EU works – like the violent enforcement of external borders to protect Schengen, which led MSF to break off with them because it is killing so many refugees; and, of course, that goofy attempt to ban olive oil jugs. But our government isn’t talking about these issues when it talks about EU membership (to be honest I’ve kind of lost track of what the government is talking about re: the EU, except that “Brexit means Brexit”).

The UK is seeing a few legal cases right now over whether we need to have a debate and vote in Parliament before officially leaving the EU, and I am desperately hoping that happens, because a Parliamentary debate could be the chance for England to learn how to have this kind of conversation – better late than never.

Update November 3, 2016: The High Court has ruled that the government can’t trigger Article 50, which is understood to be the first step in the process to leave the EU, on its own. This would mean a Parliamentary debate and vote on the UK leaving the EU. The government is appealing, which will be heard probably on December 7 or 8.

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