European Parliament Vice-President Alejo Vidal-Quadras (EPP-ED, ES) believes the EU institutions are suffering from a "serious and endless communication problem". "Europe, as a communication issue, is not very exciting. How can we make Europe exciting? That's the problem."
Claiming that "there is a kind of curse on communications in Europe," he says EU communication projects "look very attractive" but encounter "practical issues" in their implementation which require the involvement of member states, civil society and the media if they are to be addressed.
Speaking in 2006, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) MEP Graham Watson said the new focus of that year's white paper on citizens was "long overdue".
"The EU has much going for it. But it has failed to communicate enthusiasm and optimism to those who hold its future in their hands. This is a crucial juncture and, if misjudged, could risk placing Europe and its grand project beyond redemption," he explained.
"There are prejudices regarding the EU institutions and the media find it hard to do their duty to inform people while keeping out of the power play involved," according to Pierre Zémor, president of the European Association of Public Communications Associations.
David Earnshaw, the British co-author of the comprehensive guide to the EU assembly, 'The European Parliament', is not impressed with the communication of European parliamentary parties.
"Europe is sometimes its own worst enemy when it comes to translating what is done in Brussels into language which can be used outside Brussels. Europe does highly politically sensitive things, and yet it often comes across in a very technocratic kind of way."
Partnership and 'going local'
The EurActiv 'Yellow Paper on EU Communication', entitled 'Decentralise radically: Empower the multipliers!' and published on 30 September 2006, offers a number of points on the state of EU communication and how it might be improved.
Drawing on the views expressed in the Yellow Paper, it can be said that the EU institutions have begun to decentralise their communication in an effort to 'go local'. This strategy involves including a wider group of actors in the process, such as member states, civil society groups and enterprise, to offer more targeted and sector-specific communication.
The audiovisual and Internet strategies are a good sign that the EU is moving towards a better coordinated approach, taking advantage of a range of media such as audiovisual content on the internet which are fast growing in use.
However, the Yellow Paper revealed that there is still room for improvement in a number of areas:
- Communication though is still largely centralised and emanates from Brussels. There could be still better and more specific communication, using the Commission representations to a greater extent. This would place European issues and policies in a national context and engage citizens, rather than attempting to create pan-European debate on all issues, a scope which may be outside many citizens' sphere of interest.
- There is still no overview of spending across institutions, directorates-general, programmes and member states.
- Strategy needs to focus more on individuals or groups with whom communication can improve and efforts can yield results. The target of 'active EU citizenship' for every citizen is too broad and unrealistic.
- The rate of progress is slow and there has not been a significant increase in funding since the white paper in 2006. Communication before the 2009 Parliament elections did not have enough impact, which was reflected by another decrease in turnout.
Stressing the importance of national governments in communicating on EU affairs, Vidal-Quadras said "the European institutions have very modest means in human resources and budget to do communication compared to member countries". "Until national governments show a clear will to get involved in the European communication effort, there is nothing to do," he added.
"Communication between the EU institutions remains minimal but the failed referenda [on EU treaties in France and Ireland] made clear that this is needed," said Laurent Thieule, communications director of the Committee of the Regions.
"The Commission's failure [to communicate] is not the root of all evil," he continued. "It is a result of politicians' behaviour too" and the EU executive cannot solve the problem alone, he added.
Before the results of the first Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty were known, German Socialist MEP and chair of Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee Jo Leinen was frank about what he saw as the lack of proper cooperation between member states and the EU on communicating to citizens.
"The Council says communication is the duty of the member countries. But when the countries do nothing, or too little, nobody can do something about it," he said.
EurActiv Publisher Christophe Leclercq suggested that EU institutions be represented by sector-specific attachés from individual DGs in member-state representations. What's more, there was room for more diversity of opinion between the institutions themselves, he said.
"EU democracy is still in a development phase. The diversity of voices reflects the diversity of views and makes EU policies more interesting for national media," said Lecercq.
Regarding the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by Irish voters, Sylvie Goulard, president of the French section of the federalist group European Movement International, placed the blame squarely at the feet of the Irish government and political class, which "failed in its mission to explain [the treaty]".
"We are […] witnessing an amalgam where critics say Brussels irritates, that people do not want Europe, when in fact the people responsible for this slip are rather to be found in the national capitals," she observed.
Following the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by referendum in June 2008, European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, responsible for EU communication policy, once again stressed the necessity for national governments to pursue a strategy of "listening, explaining, going local" and prioritising certain topics for communication. "I will use the little crisis atmosphere we have to the full," she said, claiming that the momentum created by the negative vote "give us another push".
Highlighting the role of new technologies in communicating EU issues, Wallström referred to the situation in France after the failed referendum in 2005, when "people suddenly realised the importance of the Internet". "I'll keep talking about using the Internet more, but traditional leaders are used to traditional channels."
But the Commission vice-president warned that there is "no quick fix", stressing that long-term investment will be required which "considers new methods like citizen consultations and the creation of media networks".
Commenting on the June 2009 European elections, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: "The turnout compared to 2004 shows that this is not the time for complacency. National politicians, whose debates all too often remain largely national in their focus, must acknowledge themselves more consistently as both national and European actors. The Commission will continue with its efforts to put the European Union at the centre of the political debate in all member states."
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) MEP Graham Watson said the low turnout could be interpreted in two ways: "Either people don't go to vote because they are perfectly satisfied, or because there must be something wrong."
"We need to work towards a proper policy of communication about what happens at EU level, give Euronews the status of public station broadcaster in all of our countries, and elect a percentage of the European Parliament on a pan-European list. That might help us to have a European debate, rather than help us to have 27 national debates," he said.
Reflecting on the June 2009 European Parliament elections, the Commission's Wallström stated the turnout was "very disappointing, especially to the European Parliament that has invested a lot in creating a campaign that would help to mobilise voters". "This is partly a result of the fact that the debate has been very much a domestic one, so in the different member states the national issues have dominated the discussion," she added.
In an admission that new communication initiatives launched since the adoption of the White Paper in 2006 - such as Debate Europe - are yet to achieve strong results in increasing participation, she commented: "I think we have to turn it into much more of a European discussion."
Offering another view on the European election turnout, Joaquin Almunia, EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, reiterated the importance of communicating with EU citizens about the changes that the Lisbon Treaty will bring and the increasing importance of a democratically elected European Parliament.
He was quick to point out that this is not solely the responsibility of European institutions, but of all those who are stakeholders in a strong and effective Europe. "It's a task for national governments, for national politicians, for all those who communicate with the citizens, because Europe is not only here in Brussels or in Strasbourg. Europe is in Prague, in Madrid, in Dublin, in London – everywhere."
Professor Mario Telo, president of the European Studies Institute at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), said: "The participation crisis can be blamed on national parties, which did not do their job in explaining Europe and campaigning on European issues. Europe is still perceived as boring and too complex."
He added: "The election results reveal a crisis of national democracy rather than at EU level. In member states, we are seeing more and more of a resurgence of populism, sadly enhanced by political scandals."