The Brief, powered by CEN-CENELEC – We’re struggling too

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The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [European Commission]

Like so many institutions these days, the European Commission has taken its press conferences entirely online. While understanding the challenges this creates, we cannot help feeling that press relations seem to have generally started going downhill.

It was an interesting intermezzo in the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Wednesday (6 October), when Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said he was “very upset” about leaks of the EU’s enlargement package he was about to present to EU lawmakers.

MEPs had complained about having received the official documents literally just before Várhelyi’s appearance in the committee and argued this had made asking pertinent questions impossible.

Várhelyi replied that there had been leaks before, and they were ‘outrageous’, and that he would investigate whether this one had come from his team.

So he either misunderstood the MEP’s point or failed to acknowledge the real problem.

Which is: this is a leaky Commission, judging by the number of official documents that have already found their way to Brussels media outlets since it took over almost a year ago.

Often enough, leaks are either a deliberate act of shaping public narrative ahead of a policy presentation or a sign of dissent inside an institution about how policy is made or communicated to the public.

What is often forgotten is that the ‘art of the leak’, especially in Brussels, serves a higher purpose.

Even more so today, when the pandemic makes it so much easier to avoid unwanted questions and generally restrict press access to information, which is bad for accountability and the image of the institutions.

It is hard to preach transparency to rogue member states if you fudge such issues at home.

Needless to say, journalists have noticed.

For us, the press, whose main job is to hold those in power to account, digital communication can never fully replace face-to-face contacts with officials.

In a physical press room, it is much harder to ignore a question. If you do it virtually, while skim-reading a long queue of press questions, chances are that no one will even notice.

Technical background briefings for the selected few, or the complete lack thereof, before big policy announcements, have conveniently become something of a norm.

That is why accusing journalists of distorting the narrative by being too pessimistic, or lecturing them about the manner they report the news, while at the same time increasing barriers, smacks of hypocrisy, to say the least.

“It has never happened in the history of EU summits that Brussels-based journalists had access to so few sources of information and that the most of these sources were available only to a few media outlets,” the International Press Association (API) head tweeted after an EU summit earlier this year, those usually being information heaven for the thousands of journalists attending with all its background channels and sherpa briefings.

The same goes for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who seems to have developed a habit of doing journalist-free statements on camera, without taking any questions.

And the same goes for EU leaders, who also make doorstep statements on camera with rarely facing the press directly.

A journalist’s job is not transcribing official speeches or reporting on press releases. Our job is to ask questions.

In this sense, Várhelyi’s comments seem more fitting for the media reality in his native Hungary, than for an EU press room.

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The Roundup

The European Parliament voted to update the EU’s climate target for 2030, backing a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, up from 40% currently.

Germany warned Russia that sanctions were “unavoidable” if it failed to cooperate and shed light on the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

During the first live summit with international partners in Brussels following the outbreak of the pandemic on the continent, the EU and Ukraine leaders met to take stock of cooperation amid what critics say is a risk of reform regression in the country.

The European Commission put forward its new ten-year framework for the inclusion and participation of Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with minimum targets to be achieved by 2030 in the areas of inclusion, participation, education, employment, health, and housing.

The European Commission is looking for further assurances from US video conferencing platform Zoom regarding the security of its technology, after concerns emerged earlier this year over the company’s privacy protocols.

The Cayman Islands was removed from the EU’s list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions, prompting a swift backlash from civil society groups. Meanwhile, the EU added Barbados and Anguilla to the list because of tax transparency concerns.

Speaking before the European Parliament’s plenary, the Dutch Commissioner Frans Timmermans cautioned farmers about the need to change tack on European agricultural policy.

The Danish government and a majority coalition of eight parties have proposed stricter legal requirements for wood biomass used for heat and electricity in the country.

Creating responsible global supply chains with fair wages and working conditions is a key theme for Germany’s labour ministry during the country’s EU Council Presidency.

Look out for…

  • Justice and Home Affairs Council
  • Commissioners Borrell and Lenarčič visit Addis Ababa

Views are the author’s

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