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).