19th Feb 2019


Real democracy: real communications

People have been complaining about the European Union's communications for as long as I have been writing about Europe. Indeed, they have probably complained for a lot longer than that. The public also complains about a democratic deficit - something that the new constitutional arrangements currently being finalised were supposed to address - but which, of course, they don't, or at least not to any meaningful degree.

Sometimes this lack of democracy is perceived as a lack of communication, both by the public and by the European Commission. And so the Commission responds to people saying, 'We want our opinions counted,' (democracy) by answering, 'We shall listen better' (communication). The two are not quite the same thing.

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  • "You cannot have democracy only when it doesn't hurt" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

These are some of the problems that must cause Mrs Margot Wallström, the Commissioner in charge of communications strategy, to toss and turn at nights. She is someone who believes strongly in democracy but has to work within a system that is not at all as democratic as it might be.

Earlier this month she unveiled her latest proposals to overhaul the strategy entitled 'Communicating Europe in Partnership.' Behind them lies a sentiment that she expressed in a speech to the Economic and Social Committee at the end of last month.

"European democracy," she said, "And European communications policy are not about 'getting the people on board.' It's about putting them in the driving seat."

The new proposals build on various initiatives taken during the 'pause for reflection' that followed the negative French and Dutch referenda in 2005. They propose stimulating a wide variety of opportunities for folk to become involved in debate and discussion - preferably transnational. The internet facilitates such opportunities, of course, through websites, blogs, e-polling, discussion forums and the rest. All will be promoted through the communications strategy.

Whether this actually puts people in the driving seat we shall have to wait and see. Cynics might suggest it was more putting them in the back of the bus from where a whisper or two might emerge over the sound of the engine.

Implicitly, however, Mrs Wallström has recognised two things. First, that communication is a two way process. Secondly, that the demand for communication - that is for political debate - is not the same as the desire for communication in the form of education or information - how the Union's institutions work, for instance, or what activities might qualify for a helping of the Union's largesse.

But she has not made this distinction explicit and without this there is a danger of education and politics becoming intertwined. Certainly this is the fear of many in Britain who sadly view even the most straightforward account of how the European Council works, or the number of members in the European Parliament, as propaganda.

In France, where they do these things rather differently, I remember watching an excellent series of short public announcements in the run-up to the last French Presidency explaining how the European institutions functioned.

I really do not see how even the most diehard eurosceptic can believe this to be propaganda. If you want to change, or even abolish something, it is surely helpful to know how it is supposed to work. Nevertheless, it would be useful to make the distinction clearer between educational facts and political opinions as to the Union's usefulness or purpose.

This kind of educational communication has to be the job of member states and Mrs Wallström is right to insist that it be so. Here's where the 'partnership' comes in - not just the Commission, but member states and civil society as well. The better informed the public, the more intelligent the argument is likely to be on the political side.

Her proposals envisage such folk urgently debating the issues in varied political forums promoted by a range of organisations supported or encouraged by the Commission. Greater interest generated here will translate into a better turnout for European Parliamentary elections, or so the theory has it.

But sadly, it is at this point that we start to become unstuck. Let us take one obvious issue as an illustration - the Strasbourg seat for the European Parliament - something that Mrs Wallström herself has told us she feels should be scrapped - and of which the European public are overwhelmingly in favour of getting rid.

The citizens have been engaged; it is an issue in which they have an entirely legitimate interest seeing as they pay for it. They have made their views known - but is anyone going to take the slightest notice? No.

The problem is that you cannot have democracy only when it doesn't hurt. And this is the Commission's problem and the Council's problem. It is no use their saying we want to involve citizens, but then adding - sotto voce - only for so long as the consensus they generate causes no ripples. . That only produces cynicism and disengagement.

The public does have an issue - a major issue - which is how to control the European executive? How do we stop the train, or divert the train - or even make the train go faster, if the European executive is unelected?

In a passage in her speech announcing the communications proposals, Mrs Wallström blames the result of the 2005 French referendum on a failure to communicate adequately the benefits of enlargement. For this she blames the French government.

There may be an element of truth in this - but if so it is a small element. More important is surely the element of truth that said - 'Hold on! Our little Europe has just doubled in size and now you propose enlarging it further without a chance to consider the implications or to have a vote on alternatives.'

It is on this big issue of how Europe is run that the public wants its say. And not simply by discussion in a blog or internet forum. The issue is democracy itself. And it is not a question of whether the Commission 'listens' - or even that the Council 'listens' - it is a question of whether the electors can throw the executive out altogether if they don't listen. Once we have real democracy, we shall no longer need communications strategies.

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