Opinion

Bad news for democracy

30.07.09 @ 09:29

  1. By Lorraine Mullally

Swedish think-tank Timbro have this week made a much welcome appeal to the Swedish EU presidency to highlight the EU's growing use of propaganda and to take a first step towards reversing it.

  • EU spends millions to promote European integration (Photo: European Parliament)

Back in December 2008, Open Europe, an independent think-tank with offices in London and Brussels, published the fruits of many months of investigation into the EU's unwieldy budget and concluded that it was spending more than €2.4 billion a year on a wide variety of efforts to promote European integration.

This includes everything from straightforward advertising – with posters, leaflets, EU merchandise and so on – to more subtle attempts to convince people of the merits of "ever closer union" through cultural, educational and citizenship initiatives.

The EU has a remarkably sophisticated machine in operation to "sell" EU integration at every possible opportunity, complete with its own "Communication Department," and an impressive budget for funding hundreds of outside organisations which are supportive of the EU cause.

Without doubt, there is a clear need for citizens to become better educated about the European Union and what it does – especially given the fact that, as the European Parliament has confirmed, EU legislation is now at the root of the majority of laws enacted in its member states.

But the European Commission – and no doubt far too many MEPs – still do not understand the difference between providing much-needed information and "selling" the EU.

The innocuous-sounding pamphlet "How the European Union works," for example, emotively describes the EU as "a remarkable success story." And it is very deliberate. The commission even admits in its own policy documents that: "Neutral factual information is needed of course, but it is not enough on its own."

Up in gear

Recently, with the multiple rejections of EU integration seen in several referendums, the EU's propaganda effort has stepped up a gear.

Controversially, the European Commission now sees itself not just as "guardian of the Treaties," but as a political campaign group.

Following the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty last year, the commission sent what it called an "unofficial" document to the media in Ireland, which suggested that the vote was the result of "a growth in readership and distribution of Eurosceptic British press" in Ireland.

The commission does not have a mandate to comment on the content of newspapers or on what Irish people read – so what justification is there for this kind of interference?

Similarly, following the publication of Open Europe's research on EU communication policy, Margot Wallstrom's office sent a highly-charged press release to the Swedish media, caricaturing the think-tank as being "to the right of the British Conservatives."

They also told the office of one Swedish MEP that the think-tank is run by the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain's withdrawal from the EU. None of this is true, and is therefore nothing short of slander. Margot Wallstrom's office knew that such a description would be poison to Swedish ears.

It is also pretty ironic, given that part of our book criticises the commission for doing just this – sending out politically-charged press releases to specifically targeted sections of the press.

And it's not just the commission. In the wake of the recent expenses scandal, Dermot Scott, the head of the European Parliament's "information office" in London, wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper in which he tried to defend the EP's hugely controversial system of awarding allowances.

There is no justification at all for civil servants and officials, paid from the public purse, to take such strong and public political positions – especially on issues of such controversy.

It would have been unthinkable, for example, for an information officer at the House of Commons to write an article in a newspaper defending the expenses claimed by Westminster MPs. That's a job for elected politicians, not bureaucrats.

Bad news for democracy

All this has nothing to do with "trying to reach out to citizens" and "inform them about EU policies" – which is what the EU claims its multi-million Communications Policy is about – and everything to do with trying to control its image and limit dissenting voices.

The EU has even talked about moving to control the EU's image on the internet. Referring to the blogosphere, the commission has lamented the fact that: "Because of the many different sources of No campaigners on the internet, classic rebuttals are made impossible."

The European Parliament's Culture Committee subsequently voted for a report which proposed that the EU should regulate blogs – a proposal which was eventually watered down, but nonetheless indicates a very worrying trend.

All this is bad news for democracy. It is also an unacceptable use of public money – the use of taxpayer funds for government advertising is often strictly regulated at the national level, for instance in the UK, where "information" must be clearly distinguished from "advertising."

Why does all of this matter? It is more relevant than ever as we move into the next campaign for the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

Much scorn is poured on those groups which privately fund themselves to fight against the enormous EU propaganda machine and try to offer alternatives to "ever closer union." But rarely does anybody question the EU's huge Yes budget, which provides a continuous feed into the population and the media, not only at times of a referendum, but constantly and permanently.

With so much public money at their disposal, the EU institutions are able to propel their own vision of the future of Europe, and also begin to create a monopoly over what should be regarded as the "facts." The institutions claim to want a wider debate on Europe, but by trying to suppress those who do not support their vision, they are stifling debate.

Next time you see a poster or a website championing EU integration – the idea that more and more decisions should be made at the European level – ask yourself: should I really be paying for this?

Lorraine Mullally is Director of Open Europe

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