16th Sep 2019


Communicating Europe together

  • Ms Wallstrom - the EU needs to talk better with citizens (Photo: European Community, 2006)

For a number of years, European politicians have been facing up to the serious problem of disconnection of European citizens from decision-making at EU-level.

In the media it has surfaced from time to time, when turnout is low in European elections, or when a majority in a member state reject a treaty their government has signed up to.

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After some obligatory handwringing, the issue has been dropped, and everyone in national capitals and in Brussels, has largely gone back to business as usual.

Unfortunately, in practice, this has often meant playing the blame game. When an EU policy is popular, it can be presented as a national achievement, and when it is unpopular, it is easy to blame Brussels.

Each time this happens, the result is a greater disconnection between the decisions of the EU and the understanding of those decisions by most Europeans.

But in today's world, we can no longer afford the luxury of this way of working. If we need the EU to deal with the global challenges we face in these uncertain times, all involved in EU decision-making have a responsibility to discuss, inform and explain the issues in a way that does not undermine the very political structure we have set up to address them.

If people are not adequately informed, in a language they understand, about the issues and policies their governments and representatives are signing up to, then we risk generating a crisis of legitimacy.

Part of the problem is that there has been no real forum to address the issue in a concerted way. From time to time, there has been a lunch of European ministers to look at communication policy, but there has been nothing systematic, little follow up and no basis for concrete collaboration such as a Council decision.

Of course it is a deeply sensitive matter since all institutions and the member states will always rightly guard their right to communicate independently. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, the message grows in political importance.

Making a little bit of history

Three years ago, after the French and Dutch no votes, the European Commission started looking at ways of addressing this.

We began by looking at ways we could work with the European Parliament, through our offices in the member states, and then we began to develop individual partnerships with member states. But we still needed some kind of joint commitment at the highest levels, a way to breathe political life into the efforts and goodwill of those working on the ground.

In the last few months, thanks to the commitment of the French presidency and the political will of the parliament, we have reached an agreement.

In Strasbourg this week, a little bit of history will be made. Together with vice-president Vidal Quadras of the European Parliament, and French secretary of state Jean-Pierre Jouyet, I have signed a joint declaration on communicating Europe in partnership.

The text will commit all our institutions, and the EU's member states, to working together in planning and prioritising how we communicate Europe to citizens.

With united efforts we will shift the communication focus from institutions to citizens, from monologue to dialogue, from history to the future and from Brussels to Brno.

Of course it does not mean that we will end the blame game overnight. But it is an important start, and it will strengthen all of us as we work to encourage participation in next year's European elections, or to explain the EU's role in the fight against climate change as the world moves towards deciding the post-Kyoto framework next year or efforts to cooperate to ease the financial crisis.

The agreement is a joint recognition that communicating Europe is now a primary task for the EU.

Margot Wallström is Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for communication


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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