Communicating Europe begins at home, says Reding

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The EU's commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, Viviane Reding, reassured her staff that the European Commission will remain in the driving seat in communicating Europe but not without citizens, sources told EURACTIV after an in-house presentation on Friday (12 February).

After Commission President José Manuel Barroso decided to regroup communication with citizenship and considering the greater institutional overhaul sparked by the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, staffers felt increasingly nervous about the fate of the communication department.

In her first internal speech, Reding dissipated doubts and bolstered spirits when she said on Friday that communication will remain a strategic priority for every department of the EU executive.

"You are here to stay in order for the Commission to stay in the driver's seat," she reportedly said, adding that the communication directorate-general and the spokespersons' unit will remain the key providers of communication expertise and services to the whole college.

Spelling out her vision, she clearly refocused the lens on citizens' daily lives. "We cannot communicate if we don't have a story to tell," she stressed, citing as supporting evidence her past experience as a journalist.

Ten concrete actions to make citizens feel more European

According to the commissioner, the story should show citizens how EU policies respond to their daily concerns. Seemingly, EU policies should be about political realities.

In a letter sent to director-generals responsible for employment and social affairs, justice and communication, seen by EURACTIV, Reding asked the bosses to think of 10 concrete new legislative measures and/or concrete policies to improve citizens' awareness of their rights in a tangible way.

According to sources, Reding took her inspiration from a report presented last year by French MEP Alain Lamassoure.

The 200-page report ('The citizen and Community law') tables 61 proposals and identifies four types of problem experienced by Europeans: social security, portability of social rights – like pensions, unemployment and social assistance – equivalence of diplomas and family issues: divorce, child custody, allowances, etc. (EURACTIV 27/06/08)

"Fifty years later, a worrying imbalance can be observed," Lamassoure wrote in the report, presented in June 2008. "Economic integration has gone so far as to achieve the merging of national currencies, while the union of Europe's peoples and citizens is still in its infancy."

Faced with a lack of coordination between member states' policies and laws, the report recommended the creation of a European Citizen Card, which would serve as a permanent residence permit, a work permit, a certificate of nationality, a health card and a social security card. 

Qualitative polls to sound citizens' concern and make tailor-made policies

Conscious of shortcomings, Reding wants to learn even more about the concerns of EU citizens and highlights the need to use Eurobarometers, the EU's polling mechanism, to understand the feelings of Europeans, noting that 80% of our lives are emotions and 20% intellect, sources said.

"First we need to find out what EU citizens feel about EU policies and then what they think," she reportedly said, calling for all officials to receive better training to make intelligent and efficient use of Eurobarometers to check citizens' pulses back home.

In recent years, the Commission has increased its use of qualitative surveys. Reding wants more polls on citizens' perception so that policies can be driven by their genuine needs.  

On the front line of EU relations with the citizens are the Commission representations. "Representations have to get the story out," she said. "They are the eyes and ears of the Commission."

Make citizens dream of a better Europe

The commissioner believes citizens need to feel good about the EU, be proud of being European and be able to dream of a better Europe.

It is a tough but inevitable call, and might be the only way to increase the time that national media devote to European politics, which is currently outpaced by US politics, one expert said.

The majority of European Commission portfolios have evolved in line with changes to the EU's competencies.

This has particularly been the case with the justice and home affairs portfolio, which has been split into two new high-profile jobs: one for home affairs and one for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship.

Commission President José Manuel Barroso believes the new portfolio will go some way towards resolving problems within the EU executive's justice and home affairs (JHA) directorate.

The portfolio is the first of its kind in EU history and was created at the behest of European liberals to reflect the increased emphasis on citizens' rights in the 27-member bloc under the Lisbon Treaty (EURACTIV 24/09/09). 

The new portfolio encompasses policy areas such as the free movement of citizens, family law, penal law, consumer rights, EU communication policy, gender equality and anti-discrimination legislation.

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