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How Far Has EU Membership Brought Citizens Closer to the Union?

Lee McGowan

The EU embodies a new tier of governance at the European level and one that increasingly impacts upon issues of contemporary public policy. The EU input into the fabric and foundations of economic and political life in Northern Ireland can be analysed in terms of policy impacts, political engagement and public attitudes. The EU has enjoyed a high profile, particularly as a source of funding. Indeed, it has also represented an arena for the region's three MEP's (through the three dedicated peace programmes) to work together despite clear political differences. The European Commission continues to demonstrate its commitment to supporting peace, stability and improved economic and social well-being in Northern Ireland through the Barosso Task Force. As devolution has become an established reality, the Northern Ireland institutions of government are becoming more engaged with the EU arena. Yet, are people aware of, and can they identify with the EU and its activities? Do they know which policy areas are regulated at EU level, how decisions are made in Brussels or do they simply feel alienated from the EU? The issue of public attitudes towards the EU is an increasingly salient concern and especially in the UK context as this state moves closer to a referendum. The links between the individual citizen and the EU integration process actually matter more now than at any time in the EU's short history as public opinion represents a potential constraint to `ever closer union'? This paper examines public attitudes towards European integration in Northern Ireland and reveals a considerable `information deficit' on all things EU related and manifests itself in high levels of alienation, ignorance and disinterest after some forty years of the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union.

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