Governments and national parliaments must cooperate with the European institutions in communicating EU policies to the public if citizens’ trust in the European Union is to be improved, Siim Kallas, a vice-president of the European Commission, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Asked what more can be done to boost citizens’ confidence in the European project, the former Estonian prime minister said his “heretical view” is that “it goes via governments”.
“If national governments exercise, in their country, cheap criticisms of the European Union, then no-one can overcome this,” said Kallas, explaining that “it’s impossible to establish direct links from Brussels to Estonia or France, circumventing national governments”.
“For national parliaments it’s the same. If national elites are exercising an anti-European attitude, then citizens will take this attitude. If national parliaments and governments are pro-European, then citizens are pro-European as well,” he declared.
The Commission vice-president said he would be “very happy” to see commissioners address national parliaments more regularly, but stressed that “there must be interest” for this to happen.
“I’ve always been ready to go to national parliaments,” Kallas said, explaining that he had addressed just four during his first term at the EU executive only because no others had expressed any interest.
Communication: Hand-in-hand with transparency?
Asked whether EU communications policy should go hand-in-hand with transparency, as suggested by Communications Commissioner Margot Wallström recently, Kallas responded: “Communication is logically aligned with transparency, so why not?”
“Some portfolios are very big and some are very small,” he added, pointing to the administration commissioner’s “enormous workload” as evidence that “it wouldn’t be a problem if there were to be some redistribution of tasks”.
Communicating EU ‘not an easy job’
Reflecting on public perceptions of the European Union, Kallas conceded that it is sometimes all too easy to blame lack of communication for the failure of commissioners’ initiatives or policies.
“Communication is always blamed for everything,” he said, pointing out that commissioners tend to assume that their ideas fail as a result of poor communication rather than the content of the policy itself.
“If Commissioner X proposes a stupid programme […] then it will be met by criticism,” said Kallas, lamenting commissioners’ tendency to presume that their programmes are good but communication is bad.
“Nobody is very keen to recognise that some programmes are completely crazy,” he said, adding: “I certainly don’t think communications commissioner is a particularly easy job.”
Lobby register ‘moving’
Under Kallas’ watch, the European Commission launched a voluntary register for lobbyists seeking to influence EU policymaking.
Progress towards establishing a joint register between the EU executive and the European Parliament is “moving” despite “tensions over how to describe the possible applicants” and the information it contains, said the Commission vice-president.
“We signed an agreement in the final days of the last Parliament, and the same people are continuing into the new Parliament,” he said, expressing confidence that “concrete results” will soon emerge.
Kallas also hailed progress made in encouraging think-tanks to sign up to the Commission’s scheme. He pointed to a recent decision by important Paris-based bodies to join as evidence that “a breakthrough is coming,” despite a “very visible and spectacular conflict” over whether think-tanks should sign up.
“I think that under pressure think-tanks will join the register, but law firms are a more complicated issue because legally they are very clever,” he said.
The Estonian had last month expressed concern that not enough think-tanks or law firms are joining the register (EURACTIV 10/09/09).
Meanwhile, the next Commission will set up an “assessment body” to deal with conflicts of interest among its staff, Kallas said, indicating that the incoming executive will focus on “integrity issues”.
Siim Kallas was speaking to Andrew Williams and Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.