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.

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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.