6th Dec 2023

Launch of Brussels' communication initiative marred by confusion

Journalists and press organisations have rebuffed ideas of an EU news agency or code of conduct for media, while European Commission vice-president Margot Wallstrom argues the proposals dropped from her communication initiative were just wrongly interpreted.

Ms Wallstrom presented a consultaton paper on setting up a new common European communication policy on Wednesday (1 February).

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The main goal of her initiative is to "enhance the public debate in Europe," by better communicating the union's "message" in both Brussels and national capitals and through better links with EU citizens.

However, the launch of the initiative was shadowed by confusion over concrete proposals concerning the commission's future co-operation with media.

In her white paper, Ms Wallstrom suggests that the current commission's audiovisual service "Europe By Satellite" (EBS) could be "upgraded" and start operating with more staff, a bigger budget and more editorial independence.

"We could produce more than just family photos from the summits, and offer more of content which would be relevant for citizens to all European broadcasters," Ms Wallstrom explained.

The early version of the paper referred to this service as a "news agency" and sparked concerns among press organisations about the real independence of such a body.

"It is not up to political institutions to set up news agencies," commented Marc Gruber, director of the European branch of International Federation of Journalists, adding he was glad the suggestion did not materialise in the actual paper.

However, he added that even with the edited content of EBS, the question remains "how independent and objective can it be?"

"We need more professionalism in media content the commision is producing, but not spinning, and it would be difficult not to cross the line and manipulate," said Mr Gruber.

Propaganda or what?

Similar arguments were spelled out at a discussion forum about the white paper, organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) on Wednesday afternoon.

Several speakers from media and NGOs pointed out the notion of "communication" in the paper can be misleading, as people are prone to ask whether it endorses EU propaganda.

"It is up to journalists to make stories about the European Union interesting, not up to the commission," argued Giles Merit, secretary general of Friends of Europe.

Ms Wallstrom herself pointed out "we can not do propaganda.. we shouldn't be accused of it," but also admitted that the major goal of the communication activities by the commission is to try to "sell our message."

She argued citizens have a right to have "full information" about the EU, and those involved in the union's activites could even sign up to a voluntary charter, or code of conduct to commit themselves to provide such information, while at the same time listen to citizens' concerns.

"The European project can only survive, if citizens feel that it is their project," she said.

EU ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros echoed similar views, noting "Citizens complain that no-one is listening to them. I am greatly encouraged that the commission has made tackling this problem priority number one in its paper."

The white paper comes after a series of other commission steps, such as "plan D for democracy, dialogue and debate" or the EU executive's own action plan to boost links with citizens.

These activities are related to the commisison's efforts to deal with the gap between EU institutions and the bloc's citizens, reflected in the rejection of the union's constitution in France and the Netherlands last year.

The comments from this debate should be summed up in June when the EU leaders decide where to head next, following the union's "reflection period."

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