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Vice-President of the European Commission
Communication and democracy: the way forward
European Parliament's Culture Committee (CULT)
Brussels, 3 September 2009
Let me start by congratulating you for being elected, or re-elected, as Members of the European Parliament. I would also like to congratulate you for your choice to join this committee which has a broad range of important responsibilities, from education to communication policy.
Thank you for inviting me at this early stage to come to your committee in order to discuss with you communication policy and the challenges we are facing for the next years.
I have experienced excellent cooperation with your committee over the last five years. The reforms we embarked upon were not easy ones. Developing a coherent communication strategy and efficient tools to communicate Europe better has required political will and commitment to provide the financial and human resources and to see through changes in our institutional culture. This committee has been a staunch ally.
Let me especially point to Doris Pack, experienced member of this committee and now well-deserved Chair, and Helga Trüpel, 1 st Vice-Chair. Without your active contribution we would not have been as successful and I want today to publicly thank you.
But I also see many new faces here today. Let me assure you that I am always open for your ideas, comments and remarks. The partnership in communication I often refer to is essential – not only in the broad sense of institutions, but also between us personally.
My intervention – a looking back with an eye to the future
The beginning of the new term is a good opportunity to have a look back. Therefore I would like to first talk a little about the efforts of the last 5 years. That enables me – and us - finally to draw some lessons for the future of communication policy and make a few proposals for how you, as the key actors in this Parliament in this area, can ensure that the reforms that we have launched together will continue during your mandate. Let me call it a "to-do-list" for the new MEPs.
1. Communicating Europe – mission impossible?
Back in 2004 when the Barroso Commission started work – for the first time with a communication portfolio (not just press and information) I often heard in chats and discussions that communication is a "mission impossible". And I was called "Mrs Spin" or the "PR-commissioner" or "propaganda general". Europe is too far away, too complicated to explain, too many players involved, too many languages, too many different interests …
I always replied: for me it is mission irresistible. I like the statement of an Irishman, Jason O'Mahony in his "(improved) guide to the Lisbon Treaty": "People think the EU is complicated. It is, because life is complicated. I don't know how an iPod works, or Air Traffic Control, or my microwave, but I do know how they make my life better".
My approach is not to get people to love the EU, but to create a real dialogue with citizens and a pan-European debate. My goal is to bring the EU closer to the citizens and to bridge the gap between them and the decision-makers. To demonstrate that the EU is also a "solutions united".
Connecting Europe with its citizens is a challenge, but it is not an abstract policy, it is a concrete thing, and it is about people. So communicating Europe is not like selling socks or mobile phones. For me communication is an indispensible element of democracy.
It is the democratic right of citizens to be informed about debates and decisions that will affect them; to enable them to engage and participate. And to give them a voice. Participation in political life is what gives politics its legitimacy. I have been making the argument for the past five years: that communication must serve democracy. That participatory democracy – lively dialogue and debate – should mobilize citizens to take part in the process of representative democracy .
If decisions can be taken across borders, then surely it is necessary to promote debate across those borders. Ultimately the measure of success is how those decisions are anchored in the concerns and aspirations of Europe's people.
Putting citizens in the centre
Therefore at the beginning of my mandate I redefined the way the Commission dealt with the issue: From information to communication, from Brussels to Brno, from institutions to citizens and content, and from history to future. It was about modernising the one-way-track to a two-lane road establishing an active dialogue with the citizens. This involved as well a cultural change inside the Commission. If in the past, the main measure of success used to be reaching the front page of the Financial Times or Le Monde, today it is a success to have a broad public consultation before a proposal is drafted, a debate that shapes the policy, but also a general discussion on where people would like to see Europe going. More citizens have started to feel that Europe is part of their everyday life, and that they have a say.
I established three principles as the cornerstones of my work: listen better to the concerns of the citizens and take them into account, explain better to citizens what the EU does, and go local by bringing the EU closer to the citizens, addressing them in their (national or local) settings and using their favourite form of media.
One small example of how the last principle has been implemented is the Back-to-school initiative: officials return to their old schools to talk with the pupils about their job and their experience with the EU. This gives the EU a (local) face and reinforces the link between a town in Finland or Italy with "Brussels". This week 90 officials from all the EU institutions are in Ireland to visit their schools.
2. From action plan to communication strategy – mainstreaming communication
From these principles, with an action plan we reformed our internal structures, we modernised and professionalised our approach, and we decentralised the structure. 50 actions were proposed and successfully implemented. These ranged from recruiting communications professionals to recognising the role of all Commission staff in communication; from strengthening the Commission's representation offices in the Member States to providing clear and readable citizen's summaries of all our legislative proposals.
A udiovisual area
An important part of this modernisation was in the audiovisual area, including the internet. The aim was to communicate using the media that citizens prefer. Media research shows that less than 10% of news time is dedicated to EU-related information. Even the US has a higher share. Internet and audiovisual media were two obvious aspects to tackle in designing a broad communication strategy. As you know, we manage the EUROPA-website, the EU's multilingual web portal, visited by around half a million people every day.
Its sheer size makes it quite cumbersome: therefore, we are making the entry portal simpler, more user-friendly/targeted and easier to navigate to find clear information.
At the same time, we worked to establish an EU presence elsewhere on the internet. The EU Tube site, launched in June 2007, and part of the popular Youtube portal, now contains more than 230 videos. They have been viewed more than 14 million times. And we have also launched European debate on the internet, I was the first Commissioner to run a blog – now we are already seven, and through the Debate Europe site facilitating debate in 23 languages on different European issues.
But most European citizens still turn to TV and radio for regular information on European affairs. That is why the Commission adopted an audiovisual strategy. It involves, for example, encouraging the creation of a network of radio stations to present European issues to a pan-European audience of so me 20 million people per day. In Belgium you can for example listen to "le tour d'Europe" on RTBF radio, a press review of European news.
We shall soon be establishing a similar network of TV stations, which will reach some 40 to 60 million viewers per week.
We also have doubled the capacity of our own "Europe by Satellite" service to provide broadcasters with video footage of EU events – used now by over 400 TV stations around the world, and we continue to support the independent news channel, Euronews. All of this of course while respecting the editorial freedom of the media as outlined in an editorial charter.
Of course all of these changes have required substantial financial resources. Thanks to the Parliament, we have been able to increase the resources available for our communication work, and I hope I can count on you to resist any attempts to reduce it in this year's budget.
But even with these increases, the overall expenses for Communication are only 0.2% of the EU budget, that is just 40 euro cents per citizen per year, and this includes the funding of the 33 representation offices. The limits of the financial framework mean that this is unlikely to change until 2013.
Of course, communicating Europe is not the Commission's responsibility alone. It is also the responsibility of national governments, political parties and the European Parliament. And here we have also taken some steps to work together.
We help individual governments to communicate on Europe with "management partnerships" – under which an agreed programme of national and regional communication activities is co-financed by the Commission and the Member State. At the end of 2009 we should have 20 such management partnerships running.
We also have made many efforts to work closely with the Parliament. First, in the "Houses of Europe" where EP offices and Commission Representations now share premises, we are setting up "European public spaces" where members of the public can attend seminars or lectures, join in discussions, find information and enjoy cultural events such as films, concerts and exhibitions.
Three European Public Spaces are up and running – in Madrid, Tallinn and Dublin – and the progress report has shown their added value in enabling us to reach new target groups. The pilot project will therefore continue and be extended to 11 more this year.
On 22 October last year, a little piece of history was made. For the first time ever, the Member States formally committed themselves to working with Parliament and the Commission to improve public communication about European affairs.
This commitment takes the form of a political declaration entitled "Communicating Europe in Partnership" that was signed by Parliament, the Commission and the Council. The first test case was the election campaign for the EP elections. And I think we did – together – an excellent job.
Critics – damned if you do, damned if you not
Some say however, the turn-out was not higher, so where is the success? In 11 Member States the turn-out went up: where modern methods like e-voting were used, it went up. Where a lively debate on Europe took place, it went up. And where political parties led a campaign on European issues, it went up.
I strongly believe, we need a change in how European affairs are treated on a daily basis – it is the responsibility of all policy makers, at EU, national and local level to engage in discussions on European issues as they do on national ones. We can not expect citizens to vote on European issues if they are only discussed for a few weeks every five years. This requires the investment of political efforts!
3. Lessons for the years to come
Which brings me to the to-do list! In the last 5 years we have begun a project and taken the first steps, but it is your efforts that will decide whether this project stays on course. Let me make three concrete suggestions and a final word of advice!
First of all, from my own experience, I believe it is important that there is a Commissioner responsible for these issues in the next Commission; someone at the table of the College who can draw colleagues' attention to the communication aspects of the myriad issues that come on to the agenda of the Commission. And I believe that this role would be strengthened if communication policy was linked to other aspects of citizenship in the Commission; the citizenship programme (EAC), citizen's rights (JLS) and relations with NGOs, and the new citizens initiative for example. If the next College were to name a Commissioner for Citizenship and Communication, it would be an important signal in itself that Europe is continuing to take these issues seriously.
Secondly, this Parliament will be responsible for the renegotiation of a new multiannual financial framework to start in 2013. If the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, you will have co-decision powers over the budget and the financial framework will require your consent. It will be your job to ensure that the financial architecture of the Union ensures that adequate resources are available for promoting dialogue and engagement with citizens.
Thirdly, the agreement between Parliament, Commission and Council is new, and it will only work effectively if all the institutions make the effort to plan and work together. We have a body, the inter-institutional group on information (IGI), on which Council, Commission and Parliament plan together the communication priorities for the coming year. I urge you to invest in that body, to prove, by experience and practice, that it is in all our interests to work together in partnership. And if the new Treaty comes into force, you will have a basis for even stronger co-operation in the future.
And finally, if you allow me, a word of advice. There are many in Europe who still believe that it is not the job of the European institutions to communicate on European issues. But if the referenda on the Constitution in France and the Netherlands and on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland have taught us anything, it is that Europe can no longer be made by elites making decisions behind closed doors. I make no apology for trying to reach out to citizens, to communicate better with them, to inform them about EU policies and to engage them in open debate. So I would advise you to be equally robust in defence of this area of our work, and to resist attempts to marginalise or caricature it.
Because, in the end, the future of our Union will depend on how successful we are at anchoring our decisions and debates with Europe's people.