Sunday

17th Jan 2021

Brussels struggles with communication policy

  • Brussels is still unsure how to get its message across to ordinary people (Photo: European Commission)

Despite years of trying, Brussels is no closer to working out how to effectively communicate with EU citizens and bridge a gap that sees low voter turnout for the European elections and a largely disaffected public.

Luis Herrero-Tejedor, a Spanish conservative MEP who deals with the bloc's communication policy in the culture committee, said he has heard the same arguments and the same proposals for the past nine years.

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"Absolutely nothing has changed," he said after listening to a special hearing on the ‘effectiveness of the EU's communication policy' in the European Parliament on Tuesday (8 May).

Outside experts from PR firms addressed the hearing to try and inject some professionalism into the debate and take away the navel-gazing aspect of the discussion.

Speaking in the jargon of the marketing professionals, they said that Brussels must define "exact target groups" and "tailor" its message to its audience.

Nicole Hebert from Associé said it is time to stop thinking of the European citizen as a homogenous body but rather as "multi-faceted individuals."

Too much marketing

EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom rejected their overtly marketing-based approach as being too facile.

"This is different from advertising or selling socks," she said noting that "it presents the ultimate challenge" as the commission struggles to disseminate accurate information in the 23 official languages on issues ranging from the number of cod in the Baltic sea, to aid in Africa through to explaining what the different institutions do.

She was backed up by Alejo Vidal-Quadras, responsible for the parliament's communication's policy, who said "we sell values" and that "we want to create European citizens."

While it has long been acknowledged that citizens feel removed from Brussels, communications issues only made it on the commission's top agenda in the wake of the political upheaval following the rejection of the constitution in two founding EU member states two years ago.

But still Ms Wallstrom, the first ever communications commissioner, says there is not enough money for her to do her job properly.

"We can talk about this until we are blue in the face [but] we need more resources," she said with a small €86.5 million put aside for communication purposes last year.

She asked MEPs, who are in charge of the bloc's purse strings, whether they really knew how many people and how much effort it took to get something up on the commission's website within a certain period of time and in all languages.

Aside from the money aspect, she believes the EU has to get more political and be controversial.

A dose of controversy

Controversy and diversity have "such a vital role to play," said the commissioner, who recently stirred the Brussels pot by openly supporting French presidential candidate Segolene Royal in her blog.

She also said that the communications policy needs a programme with "political ownership" with member states and the commission not always singing from the same hymn sheet on promoting Brussels.

Taking an example the commissioner pointed out that EU information offices were only last year opened in the UK while in some member states "you can go through school without learning anything about the European Union."

The commission itself is to publish proposals on how to communicate the EU better before the summer. The paper is expected to contain ideas on education, what the commission can do with its own audio-visual set-up as well as how to strengthen links with national parliaments.

The proposals will come just a short two years before the next European elections with MEPs anxious to avoid a repetition of 2004 which saw record low turnouts, particularly in the brand new member states to the east.

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