Wallström mulls exit strategy for EU communication

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After trying for five years to find the right approach to communicating Europe, European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström has come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to give the next commissioner control of citizenship legislation and the accompanying programmes and budget, she told EURACTIV in an interview.

“We started from nothing. At the beginning, it was like shouting in the desert,” Wallström said, looking back to her five years in office as commissioner for institutional relations and communication strategy. “But we started to change the political culture, in which we have been a scapegoat, to one where we will be a partner,” she added, before warning that the results would not be visible for several years. 

In order to see results, she said, the portfolio needs to be given its own legislative work and financial means. With the new provisions in the Lisbon Treaty, communication can be naturally associated with a citizens’ portfolio, the Swedish commissioner said, unveiling to EURACTIV her exit strategy to take European communication to the next level. 

According to Wallström, there is legislation that covers voting rights and citizens’ programmes in other Commission departments. These should be brought together under the same umbrella of a directorate-general for communication and citizenship.

“That would give the next commissioner the platform and the possibilities to engage with civil society, underpinned by particular legislative files,” she underlined. 

A mandate hampered by lack of funds 

EU communications expenditure is often embedded in policy programmes, where the legal rules provide for communication activities directed at stakeholders or the general public. 

“This makes systematic reporting by directorate-general very difficult,” Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day explained in a letter to the European Parliament’s committee on budgetary control, seen by EURACTIV. 

A recap of communication spending, on the basis of the main activities undertaken in 2007, shows that the total budget is 300 million euros. But that includes 88 million for administrative expenses related to OPOCE, the EU publications office, 22 million for publishing tenders, and 18 million for the Official Journal. Only 15 million is attributed by Day to communication embedded in other programmes. 

First steps into uncharted waters 

Presenting her goals for the mandate to the Parliament during the hearing in September 2004, Wallström explained that the first priority had to be to create a culture of cooperation among EU institutions, “stop squabbling,” and stop blaming other institutions and decision-makers when things go wrong. 

During the first years of her mandate, Wallström spent a lot of time trying to find a legal basis in the treaty for obtaining an inter-institutional agreement on communication policy. It was only at the end of 2007 that she came up with a proposal on ‘Communicating Europe in Partnership’  and managed to secure a political agreement, signed in October 2008. 

“It was not time lost. It was preparing the ground,” she said. “I knew from the very beginning that a mandate was not enough to change something which is in the very walls of an institution, but we have moved in the right direction and have taken some important steps,” she added. 

The new political agreement among the three institutions is a huge leap forward, said the commissioner. “It is a rather boring document that does not make headlines, but it marks the introduction of a very important principle,” she said. “Now with the new treaty we could argue that it could be turned into a inter-institutional agreement,” she added, explaining that Article 252 of the Lisbon Treaty, if it enters into force, would allow the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission to consult each other and by common agreement make arrangements for their cooperation. 

“To that end, they may, in compliance with the Treaties, conclude interinstitutional agreements which may be of a binding nature,” states the article. 

In his ‘Political guidelines for the next Commission’  presented last week, the EU executive’s president, José Manuel Barroso, underlined that the next Commission “will redouble its efforts to have a real Commission presence communicating on the ground in the member states and in the regions, in partnership with the European Parliament, listening to citizens and dealing first hand with their questions and concerns”.

Partnership with national parliaments 

In an attempt to create greater ownership of the European project and prepare for the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives a more prominent role to national parliaments, the Commission launched its so-called Barroso initiative in 2006. 

Since then, national parliaments have started to receive new Commission proposals and consultation papers and have regularly issued opinions along with the EU assembly.

“That built a very different understanding of the Commission in the parliaments,” Wallström said, noting however that this new perception needs to “trickle down the political parties and change the democratic culture in every member state”. 

Wallström admitted that much of the Commission’s work is boring for citizens, but it is definitely valuable for national parliaments as the legislative texts impact on their work. 

“We have never before had so many commissioners visiting member states’ parliaments and engaging in debate,” she said, but argued that “we are still far from adopting a common narrative”. 

Bridging the democratic gap: Citizens’ consultations are valuable tools

Noting that the negative results of referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005 had taken the EU by surprise, Wallström said the EU had reacted vigorously by trying different avenues to reinforce transnational democratic life and ultimately create a European public space. 

Some 40,000 people took part in six transnational ‘Plan D‘ projects and hundreds of thousands were estimated to have participated virtually via the Internet. 

Wallström scrapped deliberative polling – one of the methodologies used to engage citizens in EU debates – saying it was too expensive. But she praised citizens’ consultations as a means of further involving citizens in public debate at national level. “We could add citizens’ consultations into our way of working,” she said, acknowledging it might not be a perfect methodology, but could improve over time. 

Putting the house in order 

The action plan reforming the way the Commission deals with communication was a major achievement, pointed out Wallström, referring to the strategic reorganisation of communications work within the EU executive and strengthening national representations. 

The ‘Action Plan to improve communicating in Europe,’ adopted in 2005, launched a whole series of measures to modernise and professionalise the approach to information and communication activities across departments. 

Changing the tools, introducing new methods, reforming the organisation of the EU executive’s departments (DGs) and decentralising communication to Commission representations in the member states provided the foundations for more active citizenship and policymaking, according to the commissioner. 

With three strategic principles – ‘Listen better, explain better, go local’ – the plan prompted the appointment of sectoral communication to the representations, allowing for better dissemination of information on the different policy areas at national level. 43 officials were sent to 24 member states (all EU countries except the Benelux nations). The commissioner hopes to have 50 by 2010.

Margot Wallström was speaking to Daniela Vincenti Mitchener and Christophe Leclercq.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

German Green MEP Helga Trüpel, vice-chairman of the European Parliament's culture and education committee, said MEPs would be in favour of a commissioner for citizenship and communication. "It is right to say that the EU needs adequate resources engaging with the citizens, especially young people. Otherwise we might risk to fail to win the people," she added, stressing that MEPs should step up pressure in the context of the new financial framework. 

"If it were to mean a radical change of approach – a new mindset – then it might very well be a good idea," said Giles Merritt, secretary-general of the Brussels-based think-tank Friends of Europe and editor of the policy journal Europe's World. "But the risk is that switching DGs inside the Commission wouldn't make an enormous difference," he added, commenting on Wallström's idea of regrouping communications and citizenship. 

"To connect with public opinion, the Commission must become more of a listening body. Barroso's Commission is more articulate than its predecessors, but it is still pretty hard of hearing," stressed Merritt. 

John Macdonald, spokeperson for EU Culture and Education Commissioner Jan Figel', declined to comment on merging the communications and citizenship portfolios. "The distribution of dossiers in the next Commission is a matter for the next president, and Vice-President [Margot] Wallström is free to express her personal ideas to feed into that process. Commissioner Figel' will not comment on the views expressed by Vice-President Wallström at this point in time."

Commenting on Wallström's proposal, a source at the Commission's education and culture directorate, said that if such a decision were taken, it would not be a blow to the directorate. "The citizenship programme is probably the smallest of the programmes we have," added the source.

Spanish Social Democratic MEP Maria Badia i Cutchet, vice-chairwoman of the European Parliament's education and culture committee, pointed out that the EU has failed to create a feeling of belonging and ownership, proposing that much more should be done in reaching out to local TVs and radio. 

Italian Social Democratic MEP Silvia Costa welcomed the idea of linking citizenship with communication, but said that would not be enough to grab headlines. "We need to talk more about the cost of non-Europe," she said, proposing more initiatives to involve young people and make them experience EU citizenship. 

"There is a need for national parliaments to buy into the EU process and to play a much more active role. Unfortunately, MPs have shown little interest and MEPs do not always make them welcome," said Stanley Crossick, founding chairman of the European Policy Centre.

Julian Oliver, secretary-general of Fondation EURACTIV, which published in 2006 its Yellow Paper on EU Communication, entitled 'Decentralise radically: Empower multipliers', declared: "Building on our own experience in 10 countries, we believe that professionalisation of communication has progressed, but decentralisation not sufficiently so. Addressing citizens sounds good, but do Europeans think of themselves as citizens most of the time? No, not even for national matters, let alone remote European issues." 

According to Oliver, citizens are consumers, workers, farmers, students and pensioners. "Outside special times like elections, they don't need much general information, but special-interest news, on legal rights, milk prices, exchanges, health etc. This can be provided notably with localisation and modern technology, not via central websites – even translated - but disseminating information to associations and media that are already known and trusted," he said, adding that this would require training national politicians and posting EU officials from Brussels to the member states, "many more than what was achieved under Mrs. Wallström".

Tony Venables of the European Citizens' Action Service (ECAS) told EURACTIV: "The Commission has separate units for questions about Europe which for the citizen are generally linked. Citizens need a focal point and an advocate within the Commission and such a reform would need to have an echo in the Parliament and the Council." 

"This is not about merging specialised responsibilities in one big bureaucracy but coordination, a reform started by Margot Wallström but which has to be put under the responsibility of one commissioner," he added, explaining that French MEP Alain Lamassoure's report [on EU citizenship] goes in this direction in looking for more coherence in enforcing European Union law for the citizens. "It makes a lot of sense to argue that the Commissioner responsible for communication has to have a responsibility for substance as well , but one also cutting across different departments and not linked to a specific issue," he concluded.

Since the Maastricht Treaty, the European Union has witnessed waves of public disengagement with the European project. 

In response, the EU institutions took a series of measures to make their work more transparent and to bring themselves closer to the public. These were confirmed in an inter-institutional declaration of October 1993 on democracy, transparency and subsidiarity.

The European Parliament elections of 2004 underlined citizens' growing lack of interest in EU politics. The Barroso Commission reacted by creating a new commissioner for communication and nominated former environment commissioner Margot Wallström for the job. 

Wallström started with a long phase of internal and external consultation, which she described as "putting ears on the Commission". In July 2005, she presented her first action plan to modernise the institution's communication practices (EURACTIV 22/07/05). 

Following the French and Dutch 'no's to the Constitutional Treaty, Wallström launched the Commission's 'Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate,' urging member states to start a debate with citizens on the future of the EU (EURACTIV 14/10/05). 

The adoption by the EU executive of a White Paper on a European Communication Policy on 1 February 2006 was intended to give the EU an overall communication strategy within which to work. 

Following the White Paper, the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008 saw the appearance of Commission's new Internet and audiovisual strategies respectively (EURACTIV 25/04/08). 

Building on the White Paper, the Commission issued a communication entitled 'Communicating Europe in Partnership' in October 2007, which was followed up by a joint declaration by all three EU institutions in 2008 (EURACTIV 24/10/08). 

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