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The European Commission's communications headache

J Clive Matthews
4 October 2007
Brain... hurts...

Yesterday afternoon, Commissioner Wallstrom announced the next stage of her drive to engage the European public with the EU.

EU-watchers will no doubt note with interest the proposed extention of "Plan D", as well as the acknowledgement of the herculean task of getting the public interested in an organisation that's so often simply incredibly dull. How do you engage the public with something as vast and complex as the European Union without giving everyone involved a splitting headache? The short version of the new strategy follows:

The Commission is proposing actions aimed at informing people more about the EU and enabling them to voice their opinions. The EU takes many decisions whch affect people's daily lives but many people say they do not hear enough about how and why these decisions are taken. They also say that they feel they have no say in influencing EU policies.

People have the right to know what EU leaders - including their own governments - are proposing and to have the possibility to influence them. They have the right to debate European issues together - not only at local, regional and national levels but also Europe-wide. Informed discussions and debate are vital to a healthy European democracy.

What is the problem today?

The European Union is big and complex. It is made up of 27 countries and several Institutions such as the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. It deals with increasingly complex issues which directly affect people's lives. The rules under which it works are complicated. This makes it even more necessary to have good communication with citizens. The problem is that Governments and the EU Institutions have tended to work separately, each having different priorities and different ways of communicating. The result has sometimes been that there has been little or no real communication with citizens and no real debate about European issues at national or local level.

The Commission believes it is high time to change this situation and has already taken steps of its own to improve how it communicates with people. However, the Commission cannot do so alone: it needs the support of the other Institutions and the Member States. Communicating on EU mattersis a shared responsibility and this paper makes proposals for doing the job together. If it succeeds, it will do a great deal to end the so-called "blame game" between EU institutions and Member State governments on EU decisions, whereby 'Brussels' or 'the EU' is often blamed for decisions which have been taken by everyone, as if 'the EU' is something completely separate.

What are the proposed actions?

1. The central proposal is for an inter-institutional agreement under which the Commission, Parliament and Council would have a shared communication agenda, based on agreed priorities. This is not about having the same message. It is about getting a commitment to communicate, in a co-ordinated way, on the same topics with citizens across the EU.

2. The Commission offers to work with individual governments via "management partnerships" on a voluntary basis - again involving an agreed communication agenda. Cooperation will help to adapt communication on the EU to national circumstances and link it to national political agendas. Management partnerships exist today in Germany, Slovenia and Hungary. Negotiations are underway with other Member States.

3. With national parliaments and the European Parliament, the Commission proposes setting up "Pilot Information Networks" to improve communication between European and national politicians, and with other opinion formers. There will be a network of internet discussion forums, supplemented by meetings and debates across the EU.

4. With Parliament, the Commission proposes creating "European Public Spaces" - meeting-places where citizens can get information, join in discussions and enjoy exhibitions, films, conferences, forums and lectures.

5. Civil society is encouraged to create its own forums for debate. The Commission will help NGOs to establish a network of websites where European issues can be discussed. A named contact point will be set up in each Commission department to allow a more equal access to the Commission by NGOs.

6. Young people at school should learn the basic facts about the EU. Curricula are a matter for national governments, not the EU, but the Commission offers to help governments identify areas in which this aspect of education could be improved, and to play a role in sharing best practice between teachers.

What are the next steps?

In addition to this paper, the Commission will adopt a new Internet Strategy by the end of this year. The aim is for the Commission to use the internet more as a means of getting information to people and allowing people to discuss and debate European issues. It will aim to help create a network of websites where Europeans can 'meet' each other or learn about and discuss issues at a European level.

A new audiovisual strategy will come out in early 2008. The strategy will give support to networks of broadcasters across Europe in order to produce and broadcast programmes on European issues. The Commission also aims to give better support to regional media and audiovisual media accredited to the EU institutions.

In the Spring of 2008 the Commission will present its follow-up to the current so-called plan D (for Debate, Dialogue and Democracy) projects which were set up after the No votes on the draft Constitutional Treaty in France and The Netherlands. The overall aims will include encouraging people to vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections.

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