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Margot Wallström

Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy

Putting the EU in the picture

Conference “Putting the EU in the picture”
Brussels, 20 April 2005

Ladies and gentlemen,

I get letters and phone calls from citizens all over Europe who are interested to help and give advice on how the Commission and the other EU institutions could improve communication and relationship with European citizens. Many of them involve ideas for pan European media television, radio and print-media at large. From producing European newspapers and magazines, to TV documentaries and soap operas. Why not do a TV “soap” about life in the EU corridors of power – something along the lines of the American programme “West Wing”, someone suggested the other day.

Well, why not? Apart from being an interesting drama in its own right it might have an effect on citizen’s long term interest in European Affairs – who knows?

But the point is who would write the script, finance production and distribution? The European Commission? I believe not! This is not our role. ...

Neither is TV scriptwriting our job nor drama series nor documentaries, or newspapers. Our role is to explain EU policies in an understandable way to European citizens. We are not professional entertainers or media people. This would be the role of independent producers and broadcasting companies.

That is where you come in – and the point of this conference is to focus on how you, the broadcasters, and we the Commission, while respecting each others different roles, can co-operate so that people in Europe can get the information they need to make informed choices and make their voice heard in European policy making.

The need for pan-European dialogue

Opinion polls continue to show an alarming lack of public knowledge about the EU, and very often the result is voter apathy.

Ignorance and apathy undermines democratic systems and societies. For democracy to thrive in the EU, people must be aware of how European issues affect them. And they must have their say in how the EU tackles those issues.

Perceptions of Europe are largely coloured by national history and circumstances. There is no such thing as a European demos and hopes and fears about Europe very often reflect national politics.

At present, public discussion is largely confined within national borders. The newspapers people read and the TV and radio programmes they consume are almost always produced for a national or regional audience – partly for reasons of language, of course.

European issues, if they are seen at all, are seen through the filter of national-tinted spectacles. No wonder it is hard to get Europeans to agree what Europe is all about!

It is rather like trying to get an agreed view of a mountain range from people who live in different valleys. The peaks they see, and even the names they give them, are different.

But we really need to have a genuine cross-border dialogue between citizens on issues of general concern, across language barriers and national borders. My experience from my old job as commissioner for environment gave me many opportunities to reflect on this.

How in the era of mass-communication could this be achieved? Is there a need for trans-national media that can lift the discussion out of the sometimes narrow national context and into a much broader, Europe-wide arena?

How could this ‘Europe-wide arena’ or ‘European public space’ be created? Through Europe-wide TV and radio carrying programmes in several languages, for example?

The Commission wants to hear your ideas, and we are willing to support your efforts to put the best ideas into practice.

But again, let me make one thing quite clear. The Commission has no intention of trying to tell you what to say. Media freedom is essential to democracy, and I might be the commissioner for Public Relations (for which is high time in the commission) but I am not in the propaganda business.

This brings me to the subject of the necessity for the Commission to develop a modern way of communicating with citizens.

I suspect that in the last few years we have been a bit like the guy who hired a Ferrari to impress his new girlfriend. When he stopped at a gas station and the assistant asked “Where is the tank cap sir?” He had to say reluctantly: “Hmmm I don’t know, just poor it all over, it’ll soak in somewhere”...

The strategy

The EU affects almost every facet of everyday life, yet people are largely unaware of it. Or else they see it as a remote, faceless bureaucracy, taking unaccountable decisions in which ordinary people have no say. Less than half bothered to vote in last year’s European elections.

More than ever before, the EU needs to explain its aims and policies clearly and comprehensibly. That is why the Barroso Commission has made communication one of its strategic objectives.

Our strategy is simple and I have been talking about its guiding strategic principles for quite some time now:

Explain clearly our policies. We need to speak in plain simple language with people, we need to spell out the tangible benefits of our proposals. We cannot expect media or other multipliers to do this job for us - we have to do that job ourselves!

I want therefore every future proposal to be accompanied by a short «main message» paper clearly spelling out the benefits and disadvantages of the proposal. I want officials to plan early communication needs - and I want to ensure that communication does not get lost during the process - that it is a main feature until adoption but even beyond when the law start to be debated in the European parliament and in the member states.

Go local! Every country is different: its people, its media, its stories, its interests. We need to stop having a monolithic message from Brussels - which we then pretend everyone has to accept alike. I believe we need to address each audience in its proper tradition and culture and through the channels they are interested in. This is certainly the biggest challenge of this strategy.

The Representations in our Member States will be our main hub to deliver on this.

Listen to people! Communication is not a one-way street; it is a two-way channel of dialogue. I deeply believe that we have to listen better and earlier to people. Of course we cannot do this with each citizen, but we can do this via opinion-formers and stakeholders - particularly civil society and Parliamentarians - and by carefully exploiting our opinion polls.

Be more effective in our own house how we address communication. As you know best, there is a lot to do that the Commission becomes more professional. To name a few:

  • promote our excellent tools like the free phone line or audiovisual services or internet
  • recruit specialists in communication
  • empower our own staff to be communicators
  • react faster to wrong facts in the media
  • stimulate beneficiaries to talk about the funds or help they receive – “Wave the flag”!

We are not trying to re-invent the wheel. The strategy is supposed to be pragmatic and achievable.

You, as broadcasters, naturally, are looking for stories and images that will hook people’s interest immediately. Most EU business is hard to package in sound bites and attractive images. So we have a mutual interest in making people understand and raising public awareness.

I want to find ways we can work at this problem together.

The Commission can provide you with factual information and good-quality raw material to feed into the public debate that should be taking place in your pan-European media forum.

What we are already doing

So, how can we make a start? The Commission already provides several services that can help you cover EU affairs.

We provide news coverage. Our TV agency Europe by Satellite (EbS) can give you, via the Hotbird satellite, live coverage of EU events in up to 24 languages, as well as recorded footage you can download from the internet.

Or you can interview EU representatives directly from our studio in Brussels, in your own language, at no cost.

We provide unique archive material free of charge from our very extensive library, dating back to the 1950ies.

We provide production assistance for radio and TV journalists, who can use our studios and editing facilities in Brussels.

In brief, we have plenty of tools and know-how to help you.

Are you using them already?

Do they give you what you need?

And, even more importantly.....

How can we work together more effectively?

How can we work together more effectively, and at the same time respecting each others different roles?

I believe that the European Union has a story to tell – the story of what the EU is doing for people and why it matters. We want to tell that story to everyone, in their own language, but do we have tools and the ability do that?

You are the experts at communicating with your audiences: you know what issues they are concerned about, and what kind of material will grab their interest. I want to make sure that we – when it is appropriate - can bring our different expertise together and really put across the exciting reality of the EU. I want to open up for new ideas from your part of how we- the commission – can contribute to a more vivid and interesting European “story-telling”, if you like.

To give you some examples of our current thinking – mind you just ideas yet:

How about using our excellent pressroom to invite the various visiting groups from every corner of the Union that are in Brussels every week to meet with commissioners and ask them questions directly and face-to face? We could translate into the relevant languages and send by satellite (EbS) across Europe, giving the people of Essen in Germany or Krakow in Poland a chance to see what their compatriots visiting Brussels are asking and talking about with the commissioners.

Would you be interested in more regular, chats with commissioners in a slightly more relaxed situation than on the podium of the pressroom, taking questions from four or five TV journalists at the time, using our in-house studios? At no cost to you.

I would also like to have a more regular dialogue with you, like this opportunity. I am also considering inviting you, every year, to propose programmes aimed at national or regional audiences and describing how EU policies affect ordinary people. For 2006 we are considering significantly increasing the budget for calls for proposals of this kind, so that as many as 70 TV stations and 100 radio broadcasters could be involved. The best proposals would be awarded a contract and we would place at your disposal the Commission’s technical facilities.

The Commission could also provide a package of material on specific topics: consumer protection, health, travel... To help regional broadcasters we could keep you informed on the Commission’s agenda and upcoming events, and supply you with news footage.

Those are a few ideas from the Commission’s side. I hope that we can improve our co-operation, and at the same time respect your role and independence.

Thank you.

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