MEP: Irish government showed ‘sheer incompetence’ in communication

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While the European institutions are trying to provide a good example in communicating with citizens, the main responsibility lies with national governments, who are failing in this task, Vice President of the European Parliament Alejo Vidal-Quadras told EURACTIV in an interview.

Alejo Vidal Quadras (EPP-ED, Spain) also chairs the Parliament’s working group on communication.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Following the failed referenda in France and the Netherlands, European leaders found there was a communication problem, and this is how ‘Plan D’ was born. Now we have another failed referendum, but nobody questions the communication problem. Why? 

It seems that we have an endless communication problem. Because every time there is a public consultation on European reform in a member state, we are in trouble. It happened in Ireland with the Nice Treaty, we had also a problem in Denmark in the past, then we had this terrible failure in France and Holland for the European Constitution, and now the Irish ‘no’ for the Lisbon Treaty. There is a serious communication problem. 

It is even more serious when we have seen how incompetently the Irish Prime Minister and the Irish Commissioner managed the communication campaign in Ireland. One cannot believe that a Prime Minister, on prime time TV, when asked “Have you read the Treaty,” answered “no”. One cannot believe it! And the Irish Commissioner did the same. If I had been told before that the Prime Minister would answer this, I would not believe it. But he did it! 

So frankly, it’s not a question of communication. We are on the verge of sheer incompetence, for God’s sake! Eurosceptics used pure lies like that Ireland will be forced to increase its corporate tax, or that Ireland will be forced to go to war, or will legalise euthanasia and free abortion. But if you are defeated by lies, you are not competent in communicating. 

What can the EU institutions do about it? 

The European institutions – the Commission, the Parliament – have very modest means in human resources and budget to do communication compared to member countries. If you look at the Irish case, again you see, if the government is not really involved in promoting the European integration project, there is nothing to do. Because the European institutions cannot compare their influence to national governments. Until national governments show a clear will to get involved in the European communication effort, there is nothing to do.

There have been several projects for communication launched by the EU institutions. How would you assess them? 

They are very good, and if you read them, they look very attractive. But when you go and implement them, you have these practical problems, because the tools you have at your disposal are modest. Therefore you need to involve national governments, civil society, the media, you must mobilise many agents. But there is a kind of curse on communications on Europe, it’s really frustrating. 

But you have your own ideas and in fact you are communicating by writing articles in the Spanish press. 

I had a permanent column on Europe with a weekly magazine in Spain. Its general title was “Esta Europa nuestra” (This Europe of ours). And I did it for years, every week I wrote a column on some European issue. And then they decided suddenly that this was not interesting. There had been a change of management and the new director, who is a very aggressive and competent journalist, said – oh, this is not interesting. Now he asks me every week to write on a subject they fix for me. For instance this week it’s Zimbabwe – just to give you an example. And last week it was the oil prices. Europe, as a communication issue, is not very exciting. How can we make Europe exciting? That’s the problem. 

You are quite interested in new technologies – web TV etc. Which projects would you mention in this context? 

In the European Parliament we are putting in place a new parliamentary web TV, we have already launched the prototype, it has been internally broadcasted for MEPs and officials, and now we are preparing the final launching for the general public. I think we will be ready by the end of the year and it will be fully operational for the European elections. 

So you are expecting this to have an impact on the campaign? 

Yes, at least we have a tool. And the multiplying effect is very good and the cost compared to benefit is very favourable, because the cost of a parliamentary channel on the web is quite modest, but you can reach millions of people. That’s why we try to be in the forefront of communications technologies. We have invested also a huge sum in new audio-visual facilities in Parliament here. 

There is also the idea of using online technologies to listen to people, to capture their views, to be involved in blogs. And if we combine that with the need to involve more national politicians, not only the European Parliament, how would you use new technologies to make sure that national politicians understand EU topics? 

There is a project of the Commission called MyParl, to create a web space where European parliamentarians and national parliamentarians can interact, can exchange views and debate. In the sense that the public cannot blog in, but they can look at what is happening in this web forum for European and national parliamentarians. I think it’s a promising project. Anything that can contribute to creating new spaces of interaction between the national level and the European level, to make people aware of the importance of the European integration project, on the influence of the European institutions work on their lives, all this is essential. 

By the way EURACTIV is very good too. 

We don’t have a Spanish version yet… 

No but I think it’s very good. My assistants have drawn my attention on it and I have used it sometimes, and it’s really fantastic what you do. So I must congratulate you, because this kind of initiative is a great help. But again, EURACTIV is addressed to people that are already aware of the European project and are looking for information, professionals, businessmen, academics, politicians and of course the media. Elites, let’s say. And for them something like EURACTIV is an excellent instrument. But for the general public, what do we have? This is the question! 

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