National debates ‘key’ to EU communication

Involving national actors in communicating EU policies can stimulate debates on European issues among ordinary citizens, heard stakeholders attending EURACTIV's 10th anniversary celebrations yesterday (12 November) in the European Parliament.

Stressing the importance of communicating EU policies in Europe's capitals, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said "European democracy is about engaging with national politicians on a daily basis". He added making debates in the EU assembly more confrontational would be one way of making them more appealing to citizens. 

Along the same lines, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, stressed that European institutions need to talk about real issues that impact on people's lives. "We have to bring European debates to the national level," he said, quoting as an example the strategic priorities for 2020 "which will ultimately lead the EU to exit from the crisis relying on green growth and social cohesion". 

Decentralising European debates to Europe's capitals

European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, responsible for EU communications policy, stressed that we have to listen better, explain better and go local. 

"We need to get real," the Swede declared. "The channels people use are local radio, TV and websites" and "this is where we need to put the resources". 

Communicating directly to the local level takes on added importance given that "there is very little interest in such decentralisation among Brussels journalists, because they are news journalists," she added. 

Stating that "the EU's communication challenge is not about talk in English within the Brussels bubble" but about "decentralising radically and empowering the multipliers," EURACTIV Publisher Christophe Leclercq said "we have seen the EU institutions become more professional in their activities, but the recent failure of referenda on EU treaties shows that this is far from enough". 

During the event, EURACTIV editors and publishers spelled out their recommendations for better engaging with European citizens. Echoing Buzek's view, Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener, managing editor of euractiv.com, called for a more positive role for national parliaments, recommending the creation of informal networks of MEPs and MPs "to allow further testing of policy ideas across nations". 

Offering a German perspective, European Parliament Vice-President Silvana Koch-Mehrin said "most of the places in Germany are close to Brussels" geographically, but "perception-wise they are much closer to Berlin". 

"This needs to change," the German liberal MEP declared. Expressing the view that "the division between EU, foreign affairs and national news is disappearing," Koch-Mehrin said "we need to make clear that what's done in Brussels matters at home". 

Changing citizens' perceptions 'big problem'

Admitting that changing this perception among citizens is "a big problem," European Parliament Vice-President Isabelle Durant, a former Belgian deputy prime minister (Greens) said the key lies in stressing that "European problems are not European as such, but ones that should be discussed at regional and local level". 

Durant highlighted the milk crisis as an example of the link between problems facing local producers and action taken at EU level. "With a real problem, you can stimulate a very good local discussion about a European question," she said. 

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe leader Guy Verhofstadt sounded a warning note, however. "I totally agree with the idea of debating EU issues at national level, but in a positive way," he said, lamenting that "every day politicians use Europe at national level, but they do so negatively". 

"The day Europeans pay their own money into the EU budget will be the day they take an automatic interest in EU affairs," claimed Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, insisting that giving the EU budgetary resources of its own would be "the best way to put Europe into national hearts and minds". 

Emotion 'forgotten' in Brussels

Koch-Mehrin, meanwhile, stressed the importance of the "emotional aspect" to a message, which she said is "often forgotten in Brussels". 

In this year's European elections, her Free Democratic Party increased its score by 80%, a result Koch-Mehrin put down to a willingness to do "things that could be regarded as silly to connect with emotions," like writing a column for a women's magazine about working in a male-dominated environment or appearing on children's TV. 

"This created the initial interest, and then we could introduce the EU element," she said. 

The EURACTIV event also saw the presentation of the 'EURACTIV Awards for Debating Europe Nationally' (EURACTIV 13/11/09). 

Insisting that the European Union had become more democratic since the fall of the Berlin Wall, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told Thursday's event that "thanks to modern means of communication, we now have open political debates" on issues like climate change and dealing with the economic crisis. 

"EURACTIV supports this debate between governments, institutions, business and civil society organisations by covering European policies in-depth," Barroso added. 

Jean-Christophe Boulanger, publisher of EURACTIV France, said that to bring European debates to national level, "the EU institutions need to foster hundreds of niche media that speak locally but understand Europe". 

"It is through people's words that the EU institutions will enter people’s minds," he said. Successful communication of EU policies at national level requires "feeding Europe into national debates rather than drawing national debates to Brussels," according to Radovan Geist, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Slovakia. "Choose topics locally and decentralise communication," he recommended. 

Jan Vitásek, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Czech Republic, called on the EU institutions to "avoid centralised propaganda and go national" by cooperating with local partners. "The institutions should not do the work of journalists," he warned. 

"Train officials, politicians and journalists about EU policies and complement this with roles for independent moderators, debate supporters and opinion scouts," recommended Szilvia Kalmár, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Hungary

"Stick to the concrete and tell people how the information is going to affect them and their pocket locally," advised Adrian Lungu, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Romania, recommending the EU institutions to "promote recognisable people" and make available to national representations specialists from various Commission directorates-general "for comment to journalists". 

Kristina Savova, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Bulgaria, called on the EU institutions to "find good partners at national level," including "influential and responsible media with a proven commitment to explaining important issues in easy language". 

"The EU institutions and the Turkish government need to explain the process of accession and its implications for Turkey," said EURACTIV Turkey Publisher Zeynep Gögüs, calling on Brussels to "be clear on whether it wants Turkey as an EU member or not, and say it out loud". 

Joachim Weidemann, publisher of EURACTIV Germany, said EU debates should be localised by "committing stakeholders to EU policy debates" and stated that "using online media feeds towards larger circles". 

The 'EURACTIV Awards for Debating Europe Nationally' were presented to the winners at a ceremony in the European Parliament yesterday (12 November). 

Franco-German broadcaster ARTE, pan-European rail-pass InterRail and a documentary on Turkey's EU accession were among those recognised by EURACTIV for fostering debates on Europe (EURACTIV 13/11/09). 

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. 

'Debate Europe', the most recent initiative, 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. 

The Commission also opened its own channel on YouTube and revamped its central web portal Europa in an attempt to make it more user-friendly (EURACTIV 14/07/09EURACTIV 21/09/09). 

European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, responsible for communication, emphasises that the EU executive must use "all the means at its disposal" to communicate with European citizens. At the same time, however, she acknowledges 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. 

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