Thursday

27th Feb 2020

Opinion

Bad news for democracy

Swedish think-tank Timbro have this week made a much welcome appeal to the Swedish EU presidency to highlight the EU's growing use of propaganda and to take a first step towards reversing it.

Back in December 2008, Open Europe, an independent think-tank with offices in London and Brussels, published the fruits of many months of investigation into the EU's unwieldy budget and concluded that it was spending more than €2.4 billion a year on a wide variety of efforts to promote European integration.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or join as a group

  • EU spends millions to promote European integration (Photo: European Parliament)

This includes everything from straightforward advertising – with posters, leaflets, EU merchandise and so on – to more subtle attempts to convince people of the merits of "ever closer union" through cultural, educational and citizenship initiatives.

The EU has a remarkably sophisticated machine in operation to "sell" EU integration at every possible opportunity, complete with its own "Communication Department," and an impressive budget for funding hundreds of outside organisations which are supportive of the EU cause.

Without doubt, there is a clear need for citizens to become better educated about the European Union and what it does – especially given the fact that, as the European Parliament has confirmed, EU legislation is now at the root of the majority of laws enacted in its member states.

But the European Commission – and no doubt far too many MEPs – still do not understand the difference between providing much-needed information and "selling" the EU.

The innocuous-sounding pamphlet "How the European Union works," for example, emotively describes the EU as "a remarkable success story." And it is very deliberate. The commission even admits in its own policy documents that: "Neutral factual information is needed of course, but it is not enough on its own."

Up in gear

Recently, with the multiple rejections of EU integration seen in several referendums, the EU's propaganda effort has stepped up a gear.

Controversially, the European Commission now sees itself not just as "guardian of the Treaties," but as a political campaign group.

Following the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty last year, the commission sent what it called an "unofficial" document to the media in Ireland, which suggested that the vote was the result of "a growth in readership and distribution of Eurosceptic British press" in Ireland.

The commission does not have a mandate to comment on the content of newspapers or on what Irish people read – so what justification is there for this kind of interference?

Similarly, following the publication of Open Europe's research on EU communication policy, Margot Wallstrom's office sent a highly-charged press release to the Swedish media, caricaturing the think-tank as being "to the right of the British Conservatives."

They also told the office of one Swedish MEP that the think-tank is run by the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain's withdrawal from the EU. None of this is true, and is therefore nothing short of slander. Margot Wallstrom's office knew that such a description would be poison to Swedish ears.

It is also pretty ironic, given that part of our book criticises the commission for doing just this – sending out politically-charged press releases to specifically targeted sections of the press.

And it's not just the commission. In the wake of the recent expenses scandal, Dermot Scott, the head of the European Parliament's "information office" in London, wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper in which he tried to defend the EP's hugely controversial system of awarding allowances.

There is no justification at all for civil servants and officials, paid from the public purse, to take such strong and public political positions – especially on issues of such controversy.

It would have been unthinkable, for example, for an information officer at the House of Commons to write an article in a newspaper defending the expenses claimed by Westminster MPs. That's a job for elected politicians, not bureaucrats.

Bad news for democracy

All this has nothing to do with "trying to reach out to citizens" and "inform them about EU policies" – which is what the EU claims its multi-million Communications Policy is about – and everything to do with trying to control its image and limit dissenting voices.

The EU has even talked about moving to control the EU's image on the internet. Referring to the blogosphere, the commission has lamented the fact that: "Because of the many different sources of No campaigners on the internet, classic rebuttals are made impossible."

The European Parliament's Culture Committee subsequently voted for a report which proposed that the EU should regulate blogs – a proposal which was eventually watered down, but nonetheless indicates a very worrying trend.

All this is bad news for democracy. It is also an unacceptable use of public money – the use of taxpayer funds for government advertising is often strictly regulated at the national level, for instance in the UK, where "information" must be clearly distinguished from "advertising."

Why does all of this matter? It is more relevant than ever as we move into the next campaign for the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

Much scorn is poured on those groups which privately fund themselves to fight against the enormous EU propaganda machine and try to offer alternatives to "ever closer union." But rarely does anybody question the EU's huge Yes budget, which provides a continuous feed into the population and the media, not only at times of a referendum, but constantly and permanently.

With so much public money at their disposal, the EU institutions are able to propel their own vision of the future of Europe, and also begin to create a monopoly over what should be regarded as the "facts." The institutions claim to want a wider debate on Europe, but by trying to suppress those who do not support their vision, they are stifling debate.

Next time you see a poster or a website championing EU integration – the idea that more and more decisions should be made at the European level – ask yourself: should I really be paying for this?

Lorraine Mullally is Director of Open Europe

Disclaimer

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

EU development policy needs a fresh start

As the European Commission meets the African Union in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday, prior to a new EU-Africa strategy, the obsolete donor-recipient mentality must be junked, writes European Parliament development committee chairman Tomas Tobé MEP.

Roll out red carpet - or recycle it? Green Deal's EU blindspot

In Europe the rate of recycling carpet is shockingly low at 1-3 percent. Recyclers stay away from old carpets because they don't know which (potentially dangerous) chemicals they contain, or because they are very complex due to multiple materials used.

Belgium's Aalst carnival - no easy fix to anti-semitism

This year's carnival saw Jews portrayed as insects, people wearing fake ultra-Orthodox costumes, crass comments about circumcision and the Wailing Wall, uniforms resembling Nazi attire labelled Unestapo - a play on the word 'Gestapo'.

Polish rule of law crisis at point of no return

Modelled in many respects on the same blueprint for democratic decline followed in Hungary by strongman Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, the government in Poland has sought to fuse the ruling party and the state.

Why Miroslav Lajčák is the wrong choice for EU envoy

The EU could blow up the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations' reset. Should Miroslav Lajčák indeed be appointed, the two senior EU diplomats dealing with Kosovo would both come from the small minority of member states that do not recognise Kosovo.

Only EU can tame Zuckerberg's Facebook

When the EU speaks, Silicon Valley listens. The tech titans know that the EU matters. Which is why it's so crucial that following the lobbying from Zuckerberg, on disinformation, the EU gets regulation right.

Column

Western 'endarkenment' and the voodoo politics of Europe

The continent that gave the world the Enlightenment has collectively reverted to believing in fairy tales and the soothing power of cozy narrowness. Moscow and Beijing like what they see, and are doing everything to strengthen the trend.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  2. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December

Latest News

  1. WHO on coronavirus in Europe: 'be prepared'
  2. Frontex hits activist pair with €24,000 legal bill
  3. Turkish jets keep violating Greek airspace
  4. 'Fragmented' Slovakia goes to polls amid corruption woes
  5. EU development policy needs a fresh start
  6. EU critical of China on Swedish dissident publisher
  7. NGOs urge EU to tackle meat consumption 'problem'
  8. Coronavirus: voices from a quarantined Italian town

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us