Hungary: “There is no need to amend our EU communication strategy”

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Over the past ten years, several billion forints of public funds have been spent in Hungary on familiarising the public with and - let us courageously admit - like the European Union. Those spending the money at all times took care to observe the rules and, despite some protests concerning the legal basis of financial management, the biggest problem was still the result, which was miserable, writes EurActiv.hu.

Today Brussels is just as much a far-away, vague decision-making centre as it had been prior to Hungary’s EU accession on 1 May 2004. Yet since then Hungarian parliamentarians have been sitting in the European Parliament and the press have been reporting on their activities on a more or less ongoing basis as well as on how EU decisions affect the everyday lives of Hungarian farmers, employees, tourists, sportspersons etc.  

It was after the rejection of the referendum on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands that the EU realised that basic information was not available to the public not only in the new member states but also in the old ones, that the European idea had become a mere slogan for the man on the street, and that the reason for the EU’s existence tended to be discussed only when someone was personally and negatively affected. The new EU communication policy is just in the making, that much is, however, certain: a radical change is needed. 

Let us see what the situation is like in Hungary now, how it has been in the past and how those in charge of implementing the new strategy can build on that past. 

Fighting for power 

Since 1995, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has traditionally looked after EU communication. However, the Prime Minister’s Office – irrespective of government – has kept on making attempts to take over this field and fold it into their activities. The Foreign Affairs Department built up the network of EU information points (according to some statistics, there were places maintained at great cost where one-and-a-half men per day on average wandered in), flooded the venues of public events with publications and leaflets, organised Europe Days, invited competitive applications for the press. (There were a few scandals already at this stage, for instance, while the applications of many an editorial board were rejected, the media star Sándor Friderikusz got 20 million forints for a ‘European TV show’ of limited success without tendering, based on an individual request.) 

The press, of course, noticed the infighting within the government to have overall control of flows of information. At first it seemed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be the winner with their main argument being that great expertise was needed for efficient EU communication and, in their view, they had accumulated this expertise over the preceding years. Yet the wheel turned and the centre of communication was transferred to the government’s central apparatus. It was typical that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs built up its free phone information service for over 60 million forints and then a public foundation set up by the government did the same. In the transitional period they kept passing the organisations involved in EU communication here and there until the issue of who was in charge was decided.

Propaganda instead of information 

2003 was the year that EU ministers made their decision on Hungary’s EU membership and that the administration set out to prepare the public for the referendum deciding on whether or not Hungary would join the EU. 

The basic concept focused on propaganda rather than information. The idea of using catchy subjects to launch the campaign to arouse interest was an ill-fated one. It meant that the subject matter was reduced to a tabloid level of debate. “Can I open a café in Vienna?” “Is it true that there is only a single-size condom in the European Union?” “Is it true that we will not be able to eat ‘mákos guba’ after accession?” (‘Mákos guba’ is a Hungarian dessert made of poppy seeds, the base material of opium). It was these and similar questions which the Public Foundation for Communicating the European Union (EUKK), put to the public. The EUKK was set up to distance the campaign from the government and take  EU communication out of the arena of party political fights. Those behind the idea managed to win over experts known to be genuinely independent but their efforts were in vain. The head of state in those days, Ferenc Mádl would not sign the letter delivered to two million households together with the prime minister (incidentally, this exercise cost close to 350 million forints), to inform the public about the “new order of EU communication”. Later the major trend in the campaign was that the photos of well-known rivals or people with no love lost between them were put on giant billboards to demonstrate that EU accession put even them on the same platform. Who could not be convinced of the significance of such a common stance? The prime minister in office and his direct predecessor and greatest political rival (Péter Medgyessy and Viktor Orbán).

According to the official forecast, those in charge of EU communication expected a turnout of at least 66 per cent and for 66 per cent of the votes to be in favour prior to the referendum held on 12 April 2003. It was a painful surprise that ultimately only 45.6 per cent of those eligible took part in the referendum – true, in this way the share of the supporters turned out to be 84 per cent. In addition to the attacks of the opposition and the anti-EU organisations, which have been of little consequence in Hungary, the investigation by the State Audit Office put an end to the EUKK. Its financial management was described as wasteful, the board of the public foundation resigned and the EUKK disappeared from Hungarian public life as if it had never existed. (In 2003, the EUKK managed close to 3 billion forints, by 2004 this amount fell to less than half a billion once the finance minister attempting to curb the budget deficit withdrew 368 million forints from it.)

Public funds going down the drain 

“Central communication campaigns are rarely successful: they are threatened by government intervention or precisely the search for compromise in domestic politics and the resulting boredom, the slowness and clumsiness of the main organiser public administration and the clashes between the technical approach of the invited professional PR consultants and the idealism of experts and so on,” summarised István Hegedűs, chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, when asked by EurActiv.hu. 

“According to the public’s view, the old Member States would not admit us to the club for a long time, which gradually deteriorated public mood. The perspective of the European value order, which had appeared to be so attractive at the time of the change in regimes, slowly began to fade and the great clarifying debates about why we wanted to joint the EU, why was the idea of a unified Europe attractive over and above the influx of funds virtually failed to take place. Low spirits began to spread more and more and, by the time of the accession negotiations, the framework of interpretation as “we and them” became fixed in the media – and the man on the street became increasingly suspicious about what the future would bring: there was no alternative, said he, not really enthusiastically, and stayed at home on 12 April 2003.” According to the head of this voluntary organisation, all the resources to promote EU communication were spent on putting up billboards, on the mechanical repetition of the advantages of accession, with no social dialogue and no debate on the exciting issues relevant to the country in the long term. 

“It makes no difference now, it is all past... Luckily, EUKK was dissolved – an awful lot of public money disappeared in the drain there in vain. And this is an indulgent interpretation. And Hungary has been seeking for its place in the European Union ever since – but that is a different story.”

Fourfold decentralisation 

EU communication continued after the country’s EU accession; its current centre is the Department for EU Communication in the Prime Minister’s Office under the supervision of the minister without portfolio in charge of EU affairs. According to information provided by Dr. Judit Fekete-Gyárfás, head of the department, their activities are based on a communication strategy developed by independent experts, which also addresses the theoretical and practical aspects of providing detailed information. 

EU communication is carried out on the basis of a “fourfold decentralisation”: this means the vigorous and deliberate involvement of the relevant ministries, the professional and representative organisations and voluntary organisations in communication. The objective of geographical decentralisation is to provide an opportunity for Hungarian communities to receive customised – in the ideal case interactive – information. In this process, the municipalities, schools, libraries, local, voluntary and professional organisations play a major role in addition to the Európai Információs Pont/Europe Direct network in place nationwide since 2001. 

In line with the communication priorities of the Commission, generating the debate on the future of the EU is a priority task for 2006.

To ensure that customised, easy-to-understand and user-friendly information is available, it is important to run the EU Public Information Service (the nationwide network of EU Információs Pontok /”Europe Direct”), the free EU phone service, the website, and the EU network of public libraries) at high level. Regular competitive application schemes and training support the partnership developed with voluntary organisations. 

As in other member states, television plays a major role in reaching out to groups that are hard to access because they have low levels of interest. The selected instruments are adjusted to the target groups addressed, for instance, shopping mall campaigns were launched to reach the young living in rural areas. The work of the media is assisted with a newsletter, the provision of training for journalists and background discussions on specific subjects.

The organisers themselves measure efficiency 

Attempts are made to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the work through quantitative (large-sample and tracking public opinion polls) and qualitative (focus group) surveys carried out annually. The measurement of efficiency is part of the majority of communication projects (filling in satisfaction surveys after events or training courses, onsite monitoring, quality assurance, call centre statistics, test calls). 

Dr. Judit Fekete-Gyárfás regards the build-up of the complex EU Public Information Service as the greatest success to date. One of its elements, the “EU-vonal” phone information service, received two outstanding international awards (the Oscar of the PR profession – the Sabre Award in 2003 and the PRince Award in 2004). 

The organisational framework implementing the co-ordination of the EU communication projects of the line ministries is now in place. Many people visit events such as “EU: it’s more spacious inside”, which are tied to major events; this is financed with support from the Commission won through a tender. 

In spite of the efforts, the European Information Centre in Budapest, which was run until the summer of 2005 by the EU Delegation in Budapest, could not be rescued. 

The budget for the EU Communication Department amounts to 100 million forints in 2006, but they hope that this amount will increase substantially through tendering. 

According to those in charge of the work, the Commission’s communication endeavours so far coincide with the main emphasis in Hungary’s EU communication strategy, so there is no need to modify it. 

The implementation of Brussels’ communication endeavours can be greatly assisted by the Commission’s Representation in Budapest. Its recently appointed head, Gábor György, has a great deal of experience in the Hungarian media. He said to EurActiv.hu that the representation would help to provide EU information via new methods, as Budapest will be one of the representations which, as part of a pilot project, will take a substantial and direct part in the implementation of communication tasks.

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