The European Commission should do “much better” at communicating European issues to citizens, Claus Sørensen, director-general of the EU executive’s communications department, said this week (1 June), admitting that Brussels bureaucracy was hindering its efforts.
“The house is burning and we don’t have time for a Europe of ‘we love each other’,” said Sørensen, speaking at during a debate hosted by the European Foundation Centre in Brussels as part of the first-ever European Foundation Week (31 May – 4 June).
The Danish director-general of the Commission’s communications directorate said that Europe must focus all its efforts on economic recovery if it is to emerge from the crisis and compete effectively with the giants of the future, like China and India.
“When you talk to kids about competing with China, they already understand. We need to be specific on concrete points, like the chances of energy bills increasing and being unable to go skiing due to climate change,” Sørensen explained.
“Is the Commission good at that? No. We’re a bureaucracy. We must do much better. But we’re improving,” he said, calling on officials at the EU executive to help communicate European issues back in their home countries.
“A college of 27 commissioners can’t communicate to 500m citizens in 27 countries. Commission officials need to be out there communicating too,” the Dane added.
“We don’t want to be the only ones communicating either,” Sørensen said, expressing hope that the Greek debt crisis would help the Commission to get better at “capturing the beat of the European media” by creating stories that they can write about at the same time across the continent.
He said Europe 2020, the EU’s new strategy to boost economic growth and job creation, presented a perfect opportunity to engage Europeans in a debate on the EU’s future.
Its predecessor, the Lisbon Agenda, was widely perceived to have been a failure and a lack of awareness of the strategy among the public at large was cited by many as a main reason for this.
“Take ‘Europe 2020’ and discuss one or two individual parts, like women’s participation or the digital agenda, in several places across Europe at the same time,” Sørensen advised.
Echoing this view, Gerrit Rauws, director of the Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation, insisted that no topic was too complicated for citizens to grasp. “You just need to make sure not to overload them with information.”
Gap between ‘old’ and ‘new’ member states
Other speakers lamented on the huge gaps between ‘old’ and ‘new’ member states regarding public engagement with EU politics.
“Citizens’ participation never exceeds 10-12% of the population on any issue in Central and East European countries (CEECs),” said Rayna Gavrilova, executive director of Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, a Bulgarian foundation.
“There are many wonderful ideas and initiatives in the CEECs, but it is always the same 10-12% of the population that gets involved with them,” Gavrilova said, warning that it is not small groups of activists but voting majorities that will decide the future of Europe.
“We’re heading for more trouble if we can’t bring in these silent majorities,” she cautioned.
Gavrilova said people would only participate in European politics if they can emotionally connect with the issues it concerns. “We’ve been overestimating the attraction of rational argument,” she claimed.
The Bulgarian said that European issues would need to be “concrete” and “capable of inspiring empathy,” declaring: “It’s no good asking people what they think about decentralisation”.
“If people don’t see an outcome of their participation, they won’t bother a second time,” she warned.
Turnout in the 2009 European Parliament elections fell to 43%, but hit as low as 19.6% in Slovakia.
Engaging with young people
Meanwhile, young people will only engage with the European Union if they see that their participation can make a difference, speakers warned.
“16-25 year olds are challenged by many new things and the last thing that most think about is politics,” said Jonas Dreger, a governing board member at the European Youth Parliament and a board member of the Schwarzkopf Foundation.
Echoing Gavrilova’s views, he warned that young people have many demands on their time and will only engage with the European Union if they can see clear benefits from doing so.
“Giving input is not enough. They have to feel like they can make a difference, or they’ll choose to do something else,” Dreger said.
“We need to make participation an event and an experience that they can tell their friends about. This is how young people function,” he added.
Citizens’ Initiative under fire
Participants were not convinced that the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) introduced by the Lisbon Treaty will succeed in bringing the EU closer to its citizens.
The ECI allows citizens to request new EU legislation once a million signatures across at least nine member states have been collected asking the European Commission to do so.
Dreger said Eurobarometer surveys and the European Youth Parliament’s own research had convinced him that young people want to influence EU decision-making. “But I don’t see how the ECI as it is designed at the moment can allow them to do this.”
“You need clout and resources to organise something like that and youth organisations simply don’t have the organisational might,” he complained.
Meanwhile, Gavrilova warned that the EU machine grinds so slowly that unless citizens see a quantifiable outcome of the phenomenal amount of work required to table an ECI, “they’ll never do it again”.
The Commission’s Sørensen responded by saying that the ECI will need to prove itself an effective tool for representative democracy if it is to prove a success.
Warning against “misuse” of the initiative, he said “I wouldn’t like it if the first ECI were for a ban on minarets”.
"Voter turnout in European Parliament elections has steadily declined and hit rock bottom in 2009, calling into question the legitimacy of the EU's democratic system," said Brigitte Mohn, an executive board member at the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Gütersloh, Germany.
"A growing number of foundations are helping to complete the picture by boosting deliberative democracy," she added, singling out the King Baudouin Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo as examples.
"Without pan-European political parties and debate, there is huge potential for discussion of European issues to be adapted to national priorities. We've seen this with Greece," said Claus Sørensen, director-general of the European Commission's communication directorate.
He called on the EU institutions to illustrate different aspects of the same European story when communicating in different corners of Europe. "We can do much more to create a space to discuss European issues," he said.
"Public support for the EU boils down to trust and whether people trust international institutions. Without citizens' participation it is difficult to build up trust, so we need to increase participation," said Rayna Gavrilova, executive director of Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, a Bulgarian foundation.
Gavrilova said the media had a key role to play in communicating EU affairs. "If the media are not picking up your issues for stories, then they are not interesting enough," she said.
Empowering and motivating young people to participate in policymaking is key to boosting their involvement in European politics, said Jonas Dreger, a governing board member at the European Youth Parliament and a board member of the Schwarzkopf Foundation.
"You need them to strongly identify with the topic," he said.
"Foundations make a vital contribution to society, providing crucial support to millions of Europeans," said Dr. Gerry Salole, chief executive of European Foundations Week.
"The impact they have on so many areas is phenomenal and I hope that through Foundation week we can showcase some of their work. Additionally, these organisations have shown themselves to be resilient during the global economic downturn, showing responsible leadership and creativity," Salole added.
Describing what foundations bring to the EU policymaking table, Gerrit Rauws, director of the Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation, said "Commission communications always involve the usual suspects and by nature they are technocratic, because, because that's how EU policymaking goes. Foundations try to complement this by offering something different".
"Many foundations work locally and nationally, but by ignoring the European level you miss the bigger picture," Rauws warned, stressing that "foundations need to work on all three levels to bridge the gap between civil society and the EU institutions".
"Initiatives like gathering all the EU institutions' Twitter feeds on the same topic on a single website would help," he suggested.
Rauws said that "one of the good things" about the economic crisis is that "we are talking about the Greek retirement age and German pension plans in our national media. The crisis is helping to create a European public space.
"To inspire citizens we need to involve them and treat them as the people of Europe," said Anna Wohlfarth, project manager of the 'Europe's Future' programme at the Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Turning to communication methods, Wohlfarth said "ICT by itself is not the solution and I'm not convinced that social networking is the answer either. I see people developing excellent arguments online and we need to work out how to harness that politically".
Describing the ECI as a "crucial step" for EU democracy, Wohlfarth dismissed concerns over how the Commission will react to controversial initiatives.
"The media will pay a lot of attention to the ECI regardless of the Commission's reactions, so that will help to keep the process democratic," she said.
The EU institutions are often perceived as being too remote from the lives of the citizens they serve.
In recent years, the European Commission has launched several initiatives to tackle citizens' growing lack of trust and interest in the EU project.
Following 2005's 'Plan D' response to the institutional crisis prompted by the 'no' votes against the EU's draft constitution in France and the Netherlands, a White Paper on a European communication policy was launched in 2006.
Another initiative, 'Debate Europe', was launched in spring 2008 as part of the EU executive's new Internet and audiovisual strategies, which were unveiled ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2009. It is an online discussion forum on which all input is translated into all the EU's official languages.
Former European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, responsible for communication, emphasised that the EU executive must use "all the means at its disposal" to communicate with European citizens.
At the same time, however, she acknowledged that "it is only when the European debate is anchored nationally, regionally and locally" that citizens will engage in and seek to be informed about EU politics and the decisions affecting them.