However unpleasant and undesired the British popular decision to leave is, the post-referendum analyses only confirm the long held EU-wide trends.
In the light of the decades of survey reports shelved in the EU archives, the outcome should not have caught anyone by surprise. The fact that it did, indicates the lack of attention to public opinion expressed by the means of surveys and polls. Local and national experience could have been similarly utilized to avoid repeating the common miscalculation in national strategies which do not address the faltering public interest in politics. The Union has been investing in Eurobarometer surveys for over four decades without actually delivering the message to national governments; and sadly, also without actively committing itself to solving identified problems. Worse, in line with the knowledge collected through polls, misinformed public involvement sprinkled with a pinch of frustration normally has catastrophic longer-term repercussions. The British referendum, power of Robert Fico´s faction stretching over the third consecutive term and penetration of the Slovakian decision-making structures by far-right neonazi party, all illustrate the dark side of neglect of public opinion and subsequent misinformed participation in major decisions.
If sufficient attention had been paid to polls, it would have been clear that on the European scale, most people feel insufficiently informed about what happens in the Union. Low EP election turnouts confirm the survey´s conclusion; lack of knowledge and information on processes and impact on an individual and the country results in one of the two possible scenarios. The first is a neutral attitude towards the Union and related lack of interest in participation due to the uncertainty regarding the individual´s role. The second scenario is the opposition to integration based on circumscribed or misrepresented information and the lack of more in-detail knowledge on internal functioning. The general trend then goes as follows: the more interested the one is in developments unfolding in politics, the more positive attitude towards the Union he harbours. The higher the education he acquired, the more supportive of the EU and further integration he is. This relates not only to better information regarding overall benefits the Union offers to its member states, but more specifically to a personal gain from skills in the larger market. Full-timers are generally more optimistic about the integration prospects. Further, the older the individual is, the less enthusiastic about the whole European project he is likely to be. Local and national political elites influence public opinion and the attitude towards the European Union tends to reflect the one held towards national government.
Finally, media should responsibly fill in the knowledge gap; however, the record of fulfilling the function is rather vague.
Similar patterns are then discernible in attitudes towards domestic government. The older, the less tending towards innovation and change. The higher the education level achieved, the more interest in politics.
Surveys conducted after the British referendum confirm that the underlying voting dynamics reflects the EU-wide one, and presumably, the even wider, global trend. “The older the voters, the more likely they were to have voted to leave the EU. Nearly three quarters (73%) of 18 to 24 year-olds voted to remain, falling to under two thirds (62%) among 25-34s. A majority of those aged over 45 voted to leave, rising to 60% of those aged 65 or over. A majority of those working full-time or part-time voted to remain in the EU; most of those not working voted to leave. A majority (57%) of those with a university degree voted to remain, as did 64% of those with a higher degree and more than four in five (81%) of those still in full time education. Among those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, a large majority voted to leave.“ Further, misrepresented information politicians provided could only have a dire effect on those individuals with little knowledge of the Union on their own. Similarly, as demonstrated, medial bias significantly affected the popular decision. Misleading political campaigns and subjective media coverage are particularly dangerous in cases where all knowledge of the Union the one has comes from such sources.
The contemporary political mosaic of Slovakia can be explained as the combination of the lack of knowledge of, or poor memory of the country´s history, misleading populist tendencies of some political figures, and popular frustration. Retirees and socially marginalized or excluded groups have largely been supportive of the populist party led by the current Prime Minister Robert Fico. A lot of energy has been invested into promoting minor benefits for elderly, with an aim to overshadow the major harm done to Slovakia´s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and thus to the entire economic base. Negligible short term aid coupled with a large-scale corruption pertaining also the allocation of the EU funds slowly bury the economy over the long run. Skilful omission of such details from speeches of the PM, while at the same time stressing the almost invisible improvement in the living standards of Slovakia´s retirees successfully divert attention of the party´s voters from obvious and tangible loss on the part of entrepreneurs. Sadly, younger segments of population and those outright affected by the government´s plans at eradicating SMEs in favour of multinationals and a one-off gain from brokered deals, already convinced themselves of their lack of influence over decisions. As a result, they do not see the point in political participation. History of referendums in Slovakia confirms the trend; „the only referendum that has been successful in Slovakia was the 2003 vote on its EU membership with a 52 percent turnout and 92.5 percent in favor of joining the bloc.“ This implies that approximately a half of Slovakia´s constituency is aware of the perks of political participation and thus readily takes part in decisions-making with consequences directly impacting on personal fortunes. Nevertheless, where the issue at stake does not touch the potential participants, the turnout can be as low as 21.41 percent in the 2015 same sex referendum. Same trends flash out on all other occasions, with the 2016 parliamentary election turnout lower than 60 percent.
What is worse than no participation is probably only the frustration-driven involvement. In Slovakia, the spells of passive apathy give way to participation increases when frustration strikes. As a result, the small Central European country voluntarily allowed for the return of right wing extremism into high-profile politics. Despite his personal history, Marian Kotleba was initially elected a district administrator in the regional elections in 2013. This can be read as a result of local frustration with rising unemployment and postponing the solution to the question of economically inactive minorities. The decision has been widely criticized by everyone who possesses at least some knowledge of the country´s past. The government failed to take this choice as a warning signal and Kotleba´s party legally gained seats in Parliament in this year´s election. Repercussions are yet to be seen, however, Kotleba is already collecting signatures to call for Sexit.
Luckily, there is a way to overcome apathy and deliver successful and constructive democracy. Slovakia´s 2014 Presidential election offers a key to avoiding misinformed decisions. Presented with two candidates, Andrej Kiska and Robert Fico, the population finally understood that the fate of the country is under threat and students, youth and economically active population mobilized in a strong information campaign. Civil society organized logistics and dispatched several buses to neighbouring countries to spare the Slovak nationals living abroad of the cost of travelling and bring them to vote. Even though the final turnout of slightly above 50 percent, Andrej Kiska decisively won with almost 60 percent. For the first time in years, Slovakia enjoys the President worth his function. Polls confirm his continued popularity and public confidence.
As recent developments unfolding all over the European Union prove, ignorance poses a serious limit to democracy. Media often fail to fulfil their function of knowledge gap fillers and until the information deficit is addressed, democratic participation will eventually cause more harm than good. State leaders should pay more attention to surveys indicating the apathy and resulting uninformed choice. Let the British referendum be the lesson learned the hard way.