EU Communication Policy
Communicating with EU citizens has long been a primary concern of the European Commission, with the need to boost popular trust in the European project becoming more important following the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters and more recently rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish.
The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 had something of a rough ride. It was not ratified by all the member states at the first time of asking, with Denmark accepting it only at a later date and France only approving it by a tiny margin. This started a debate about the 'democratic deficit' of the EU project.
In response, the EU institutions took a series of measures to make their work more transparent and to bring themselves closer to the public. These were confirmed in an inter-institutional declaration of October 1993 on democracy, transparency and subsidiarity.
The European Commission adopted a communication, in June 2001, on a new framework for co-operation on activities related to the EU's information and communication policy.
The communication called on the other institutions and on the member states to join in its efforts to overhaul the Union's information and communication policy. For the first time, the importance of the role played by member states in disseminating information on EU issues was recognised.
Later, in March 2002, the European Parliament adopted a report calling for improved EU information policies and the development of a comprehensive communications strategy. In July 2002, the Commission produced a communication on a new strategy for its information and communication policy, but this did not change the tide of decreasing public support. Other initiatives on access to documents, transparency and the opening up of the Council of Ministers' meetings followed.
The European Parliament elections of 2004 underlined citizens' growing lack of interest in EU politics. The Barroso Commission reacted by creating a new commissioner for communication and nominated former environment commissioner Margot Wallström for the job.
Wallström, currently vice-president of the European Commission and commissioner for institutional relations and communication strategy, started with a long phase of consultation internally as well as externally. She called it "putting ears on the Commission". In July 2005, she presented her first action plan to modernise the institution's communication practices (EurActiv 22/07/05).
In the meantime, EU leaders had been shocked by the double rejection of the draft constitution in referenda in France and the Netherlands. The ratification process came to a standstill, and heads of state and government decided in June to enter a "period of reflection" before deciding where to go after this crisis.
On October 2005, Wallström launched the Commission's 'Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate,' urging member states to start a debate with citizens on the future of the EU (EurActiv 14/10/05).
The Commission's adoption of the White Paper on a European Communication Policy on 1 February 2006 was intended to give the EU an overall communication strategy within which to work.
The document states five areas for action in partnership with other institutions, governments and civil society:
- To anchor the right to freedom of information in the EU and national institutions, it proposes developing a European Charter or Code of Conduct on Communication. A special website on Europa will invite reactions from citizens on this document.
- To "empower citizens", it proposes to provide tools and instruments to improve civic education (e.g. a network of teachers, digitally connected European libraries), connect people to each other (e.g. physical and virtual meeting places) and strengthen the relationship between citizens and institutions (e.g. minimum standards for consultation).
- The White Paper recommends that the EU work better with the media and focus more on new technologies such as the Internet, but does not manage to define exactly how. The idea of a special EU news agency (which featured in previous versions of the White Paper) disappeared from the final version, but it still talks about "upgrading Europe by Satellite" and "to explore the desirability of having an inter-institutional service operating on the basis of professional standards".
- Understanding European public opinion better: A network of national experts in public opinion research and an independent Observatory for European Public Opinion are two of the ideas mentioned.
- The White Paper underlines the need to "do the job together" by communicating Europe via partnerships between the EU institutions, member states, regional and local levels, political parties and civil society organisations.
The upcoming second Irish referendum on 2 October 2009 presents a major test of the effectiveness of the EU's communication strategy, and whether the efforts of the European institutions and Irish governments have succeeded in engaging the citizens of Ireland in particular.
EU officials as well as the Irish government are keen to avoid a second 'no' vote, which would jeopardise and could even postpone for years any further European constitutional reform.
There are many reasons behind the EU's communication challenge:
- There is a general lack of trust in politicians and governments in all modern western democracies (EurActiv 27/01/06);
- the EU has a unique and complex system of decision-making which is hard to understand and there is a lack of attention paid to it in national education systems;
- linguistic barriers add to the complexity of EU policies;
- national decision-makers have a tendency to blame the EU when unpopular measures need to be introduced and to take the sole credit for popular EU decisions;
- there are no genuine EU-wide political parties and therefore any referenda or election with a European dimension will always be seen through a national filter;
- there are no big EU-wide media and national media will look at EU policies only within the context of their national political system;
- the EU's information and communication strategy has always had more of an institutional and centralised PR dimension (with 'streamlined' information) than a real citizen-centred 'public sphere' dimension, and;
- the role of member states in communicating Europe at national level has always been underestimated.
Following the White Paper, the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008 saw the appearance of Commission's new Internet and audiovisual strategies. The Web strategy focuses on the online portal 'Europa'. Europa is currently structured around the institutions, but is being reformatted to become based around themes and issues for a more user-friendly approach, to encourage greater communication between citizens and EU institutions and become a 'gateway to the EU' (see EurActiv 14/07/09).
The audiovisual strategy's primary objective is to boost the amount of audiovisual coverage EU-related issues receive from national media. In April 2008 Euranet, an international radio network made up of a consortium of 15 European radio broadcasters, began transmitting in 12 different European languages. Through such networks, the Commission hopes to provide information to a wide audience, increase awareness of the work of the EU institutions and encourage cross-border debate on European issues.
Expanding on the Plan D initiative, 'Debate Europe' was launched in spring 2008. It aims to encourage debate about the future of Europe through public consultations and online networks, and to narrow the gap between European and national politics through debates and exhibitions in European cities. The launch was timed to coincide with the run-up to the European Parliament elections in 2009.
Another face of the Commission's efforts is increasing transparency. In an attempt to increase the transparency of the EU institutions, the EU executive launched a voluntary public register for 'interest representatives' in June 2008, part of the European Transparency Initiative launched by Commmission Vice-President Siim Kallas in 2005 (see EurActiv LinksDossier). As of July 2009, over 1,600 lobbyists had registered, shedding light on their influence on EU policymaking and what financial resources are at their disposal.
Moreover, since 2007, the Commission has been publishing the names of the majority of recipients who receive funds from the EU budget and the amounts they are allocated. The 'Financial Transparency System' search engine allows citizens to see how and by whom their taxes are spent.
Despite these initiatives, turnout for the European Parliament elections in June 2009 was nevertheless the lowest on record, at 43.4%. This event was a fresh reminder of the relative lack of interest from EU citizens in voting at the EU level, and the difficulties yet to be overcome.
'Communicating Europe in Partnership'
Building on the White Paper, the Commission issued a communication entitled 'Communicating Europe in Partnership' in October 2007, which was followed up by a joint declaration by all three EU institutions in 2008. Together they represent a set of principles and objectives, which can be summarised thus:
- Coordinated Communication: This gives a more prominent role to the inter-institutional group for information (IGI), a framework within which the EU institutions share information on communication activities in order to promote synergies and agree on a more coherent and overarching communication strategy.
The IGI is complemented by an inter-institutional agreement (IIA) – a coordinated approach involving greater cooperation with member states on communication issues. It is significant in that it cements their political commitment, together with the institutions, to taking responsibility for informing and communicating with citizens on EU matters, and offers a loose protocol for formulating communication priorities and pursuing those priorities.
- Partnership: The declaration states that the Commission is committed to working with member states, regional bodies, NGOs, enterprises and representatives of civil society as partners in communicating about EU issues and policies.
With these partnerships in mind, the importance of multilingualism and increasing the number of languages used to communicate with and engage citizens in their national environment is highlighted.
All this helps to adapt communication to local political agendas, and responsibility for implementation is shared between the Commission and EU member states.
- The declaration also stresses the importance of 'acting locally'. A pilot project placing additional communication staff into eleven of the Commission's representations in member states has provided more scope for stimulating debate on European issues within the national political context.
The document also includes proposals on active citizenship, involving more education about the history of the EU and European issues, such as immigration and supporting foreign language learning.
- Euro Info Centres and Innovation Relay Centres are also mentioned by the Commission as a possible means of improving the quality of communication. These centres bring together a large number of actors working at the regional and local levels. The EU executive hopes that greater coordination between these networks will allow more effective two-way communication about EU affairs across the member states.
- The Commission also wants to improve the use of media, including multi-annual contracts for networks of broadcasters across Europe. The agreements allow networks to independently produce and broadcast EU affairs programmes according to their own editorial standards. Europe by Satellite (EbS), the Commission's own broadcasting service, is expanding its coverage of EU activities.
- Last and least controversial, the declaration cites an intention to improve the EU executive's understanding of public opinion, by reviewing the methodology of Eurobarometer polls of EU citizens and if possible strengthening it.
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."
- 16 Nov. 2006: Parliament adopts Herrero report on the Commission's White Paper on Communication, rejecting the idea of a code of conduct for all institutions and demanding a single budget line and a legal basis for communication policy (see EP press release).
- 2006-2007: The Commission organises two stakeholder debates: one on using public opinion research and one on 'empowering citizens'.
- 19 Jan. 2007: 'Communicators' stakeholder conference in Berlin (EurActiv 31/01/07)
- 3 Oct. 2007: Commission adopts communication on 'Communicating Europe in Partnership'.
- Spring 2008: Commission launches 'Debate Europe', an online forum for discussion of EU issues between citizens and with decision-makers.
- 12 June 2008: Treaty of Lisbon rejected by Irish voters.
- 30 Jan. 2009: Official presentation of the EU affairs calendar website.
- 4-7 June 2009: European Parliament elections.
- 2 Oct. 2009: Ireland to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty in a second referendum.