Late poll release highlights Eurobarometer PR role

22.11.06 @ 09:11

  1. By Mark Beunderman

BRUSSELS - A spring Eurobarometer poll on energy which still awaits publication - revealing a drop in public support for EU powers in this area - highlights the European Commission's strategic use of its Eurobarometer surveys in promoting key policies.

  • Commissioners often use public opinion polls to back up new initiatives (Photo: European Commission)

The energy poll, conducted last spring, reveals a decline in public backing for the idea that the EU rather than national governments should take decisions on energy – representing a blow to commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso who has identified energy as one of his flagship projects.

The disappointing Eurobarometer survey was circulating in the commission and obtained by EUobserver in July, but is still waiting to be released, with officials now aiming to make it public before the end of this month.

The survey finds that only 39 percent of respondents say the EU level is more appropriate to take energy decisions than the national level – a drop compared to 47 percent measured in autumn 2005.

A commission energy spokesman said that the latest energy survey is not being hidden or actively delayed, saying "we have no inconvenience in having this poll published."

Another spokesman explained the delay is due to Brussels' public opinion unit being busy with organising a major Eurobarometer poll which took place last month.

But the slow proceedings contrast with the swift and pro-active communication by Brussels of the previous, more positive autumn survey on energy which was released in January.

This poll was not only published within two months after the fieldwork, it was also personally presented by energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs and highlighted by a press release stating "European citizens in favour of a European Energy policy, says Eurobarometer survey."

The latest energy poll however is set to be merely put on the Eurobarometer website, with Brussels not planning a press conference or even a press release.

Timing and communication

The contrasting PR procedures applied to the two energy polls highlight the various degrees of what commission officials call "active communication" of Eurobarometer surveys.

The time between fieldwork and publication of Eurobarometer polls vary considerably, from a few weeks - such as in the case of this month's roaming survey - to up to almost a year, like in the case of a 2003 AIDS study.

A commission communication spokesman said that decisions on whether or not to attract attention to Eurobarometer polls are not political. "[These decisions] are driven purely by our aspirations to best facilitate the work of journalists," he said.

"We make this information available for reasons of transparency...but it is our option whether or not to actively communicate," added another commission official.

Eurobarometer surveys, conducted for the commission by leading commercial polling firms such as Gallup and TNS, automatically become public after two years when stored in the commission's archives - which are publicly accessible.

Beforehand, all polls are also posted on the commission's website after the full Eurobarometer reports - drafted by the polling firms - are approved by commission services.

'Biased'

In Brussels' day-to-day communication, meanwhile, the Eurobarometer appears to be gaining significance as an instrument in promoting what the Barroso commission calls its "citizens agenda."

Several commissioners have recently been citing Eurobarometer data to back up new EU initiatives - in policy areas ranging from mobile phone roaming to obesity - as well as policy shifts such as a more careful approach towards enlargement.

Justice commissioner Franco Frattini last summer told Dutch MPs that "in the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, Dutch citizens are in the absolute first line of European citizens in all countries asking for more Europe," calling upon The Hague to agree to give up its veto on justice matters.

For some EU-critical observers however, Brussels' active PR use of Eurobarometer data raises suspicions on the objective reliability of the instrument.

Neil O'Brien, who heads the London-based Open Europe think-tank, said the Eurobarometer is "biased" in how questions are formulated and framed.

He highlighted that in a major poll on the future of the EU published in May, people were asked what changes they would like to see in a future Europe - but they were only being offered "integrationist" options such as "a common constitution" and "a common European Army."

"All of the options they asked imply further integration - there are no anti-integrationist options," said Mr O'Brien.

He also criticised the Eurobarometer for failing to directly ask people about their stance on the EU constitution, instead vaguely quizzing opinions about "a constitution for Europe."

'Byzantine' discussions

But a commission spokesman rebuffed the "bias" accusation, pointing to the fact that the May Eurobarometer also revealed calls for less EU powers, with most UK and Nordic citizens favouring "less" EU decision-making on unemployment.

The spokesman said that "the Eurobarometer is conducted by professional polling firms, not by commission officials on a bus," adding that an upcoming poll will ask respondents directly on their view on the EU constitution text as it currently stands.

Meanwhile, pollsters present at a conference in Madrid last month told EUobserver they are under no particular pressure from the commission to produce favourable results by asking questions in a certain way.

"The discussions we have with [commission officials] on the type of questions asked are not of a political nature, but rather on technical or linguistic issues. We have these discussions with most of our clients," according to one researcher.

Some pollsters, however, called upon Brussels to interfere less in the questions asked - even if on a technical level. "Don't have these Byzantine discussions about what can be asked – then you will have bad questions" another contact said.