Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Seventh Report


49 Future of Europe: information and communications activities during the "Period of Reflection"

(27646)

9701/1/06

Joint Presidency and Council Report on Member States' information and communication activities during the period of reflection

Legal base
Deposited in Parliament4 July 2006
DepartmentForeign and Commonwealth Office
Basis of considerationExplanatory Memorandum of 14 July 2006
Previous Committee ReportNone; but see HC 34-xxii (2005-06), para 1 (15 March 2006) and HC 34-xxxi (2005-06), paras 1 and 30 (14 June 2006)
Discussed in Council15-16 June European Council
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared, but further information requested. Relevant to the debate on "A Citizens' Agenda — Delivering Results for Europe" (reported on 14 June 2006)

Background

49.1 The June European Council adopted a declaration on "the ratification of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe", calling for a "period of reflection" following the negative votes in France and the Netherlands and "a broad debate to take place in each of our countries, involving citizens, civil society, social partners, national parliaments and political parties" in which the European Institutions should "make their contribution, with the Commission playing a special role in this regard".

49.2 On 15 March we considered Commission Communication 14775/05 "The Commission's contribution to the period of reflection and beyond: Plan-D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate", which said that Plan D "gave new impetus to the debate on the future of Europe by encouraging new ways to draw citizens into the debate". Although triggered by the French and Dutch referenda, Plan D was not "a rescue operation for the Constitution", nor was it limited in time to the reflection period: it was "a starting point for a long term democratic reform process", designed "to create a citizens' ownership of EU policies, to make them understandable and relevant, and to make EU Institutions accountable and reliable to those they serve". Stressing the primary responsibility of Member States for responding to the call for a period of reflection, the Commission said its role was to assist, not replace, them, and offered a number of ideas on "how it could, as an institution, contribute to the debate" and suggested various themes — Europe's economic and social development; Feeling towards Europe and the Union's tasks; and Europe's borders and its role in the world. National debates would be energised by visiting Commissioners, regional "talk fests" and EU Goodwill Ambassadors. This "listening exercise" needed to ensure that the feedback had a direct impact on the EU policy agenda and led to clear results that were taken on board at the end of the period of reflection. Each Member State should present a synthesis to the Commission and Presidency of the initial results, which should be made public, in April 2006. A Commission-organised Conference on "Europe Day" (i.e., 9 May 2006) would draw together the main conclusions, and an overall synthesis of the national debates, thus allowing the Austrian Presidency "to orientate the preparation of the stocktaking exercise at the June 2006 European Council as set out in the declaration by Heads of State and Government".

49.3 A skeletally thin Explanatory Memorandum from the then Minister for Europe only said that the Government welcomed the principles behind Plan-D, looked forward to the proposed Commissioner visits, insisted that implementation must be in co-operation with Member States and respect national circumstances, and favoured further discussion on the detail, framework and feedback process. He did not mention what action the Government itself had in mind on ensuring effective UK participation in the process envisaged in the European Council Conclusions; nor if any visits by Commissioners or any of the events suggested by the Commission were planned to take place here; or any of the Commission's other Plan-D ideas, such as new information-relaying Europe Direct Centres in various public authorities and universities.

49.4 The EM also gave no idea of what sort of contribution the Government had in mind with regard to the synthesis of national debates; nor, it seemed, did the Government wish to seek the views of Parliament in preparing it. We accordingly recommended the Communication for debate in the European Standing Committee, along with Commission Communication 5992/05, a "White Paper on European Communication Policy".[121] That debate took place on 23 May.[122]

49.5 On 14 June we then considered a further Commission Communication, "The period of reflection and Plan D", which provided "a synthesis of the debates, with particular reference to the lessons that can be learnt from Plan D" and included details from a special Eurobarometer survey on the Future of Europe. It looked at four issues raised in national debates so far:

—  The economic and social development of Europe;

—  The European Union and its role;

—  The borders of Europe and its role in the world; and

—  The way the Union works: "Concrete actions, less words".

It accompanied Commission Communication 9390/06 "A Citizens' Agenda — Delivering Results for Europe" as the Commission's contribution on the Future of Europe, which we recommended for debate on the Floor of the House.[123] That debate has yet to take place.

The Joint Presidency/Commission Report

49.6 The "Report on Member States information and communication activities during the reflection period" (the report) is a summary of Member State responses to an Austrian Presidency February 2006 questionnaire on information and communication activities carried out in Member States during the period of reflection (cf. paragraph 49.4 above). The objective is to set out common approaches and main tendencies and "provide a factual overview of preliminary national activities". The main findings are presented under eight headings:

—  Types of projects: information and communication activities employed "all modalities" but the most appreciated were TV and radio. The most appropriate subjects for coverage should be "ones which affect citizens' daily lives". Although there should be debates carried out by politicians and opinion leaders, the formats should go "beyond traditional political information programmes" and include the style of "popular TV shows". The interconnection between information and communication activities and education should be strengthened, including in schools and in teacher training. The Internet is "one of the favourite vectors of national administrations and representatives of civil society", although, the report says somewhat delphically, "some recalled negative experiences with virtual fora, the initial purpose of which was diverted".

—  Topics discussed: the subjects to which citizens attached the highest priority varied among Member States. They had no European agenda "as such". Europe instead "constitutes for them an extension of the national agenda". EU institutional questions "arouse hardly any interest". Instead, citizens "attach priority to those subjects which have had or could have a direct impact on their daily lives".

—  Key messages: "perceptions varied so widely from one Member State to another that it would be illusory to conceive messages common the EU as a whole". Again somewhat elliptically, the report says that "a threat of demagogy exists when positive messages concerning Europe are launched in an abstract way"; and then goes on more straightforwardly to say "Information based on real facts [sic] seems to have a positive impact".

—  Targeted public/audience: The report says that, very often, "information on Europe seems to be addressed to a section of the general public whose considerable degree of technical expertise gives it a high level of awareness of such matters". The challenge is instead to capture the interest of those who are less interested in EU issues;

—  Citizens' expectations: improving the quality of life, combating unemployment, increasing security and protecting the environment "remain at the core of European citizens' aspirations". European citizens expect answers at European level, but at the same time express mistrust in the way in which decisions are taken by the EU institutions — "a process which is incomprehensible to many". Citizens in a majority of Member States expressed a desire to be more closely involved in EU matters, but the way in which this desire is expressed is "far from unanimous".

—  Using the Internet: all Member States have made Internet platforms a key element of their European communication strategies. But the Internet is "a powerful instrument which requires a considerable degree of know-how. The mere accumulation of information is not sufficient; such a practice could, on the contrary, turn out to be counter-productive". Succinct presentation, clear language and proper adaptation to the targeted audience are crucial when communicating via the Web. Co-operation between Member States and the EU institutions in the field of the Internet is "crucial, since the risk of duplicating efforts is particularly high".

—  Lessons learned: it "remains to be seen" whether the great efforts public administrations are clearly making in terms of information and communication on Europe will achieve the expected results, "in particular when the aim is to increase citizens' interest". Initiatives aiming to increase civil society's involvement would constitute a step in the right direction. Ultimately, citizens themselves are the best communicators "since they can exchange their ideas with other citizens based on their own direct experiences". But giving citizens a voice "could not, however, replace action taken by the political authorities, since the latter are responsible for conveying clear messages on European issues";

—  Co-operation with EU institutions: The report poses three questions concerning the role and the importance of co-operation with the EU institutions when undertaking EU information activities; whether a European Communications Policy could have a favourable impact on national debates, and on EU information activities in general; and whether it is possible and desirable to ensure synergy between the activities organised at the national level and those envisaged by the European institutions. It concludes that although almost all Member States co-operate with the EU institutions "with due regard for the principle of the voluntary participation of Member States":

  • the administrative complexity is such that the potential of the existing mechanisms is not fully exploited;
  • when promoting or subsidising initiatives, in particular those proposed by civil society representatives, national public bodies and Community institutions act too often in an uncoordinated way;
  • planning and advance information on possible activities co-financed between Member States and EU Institutions should be improved; and
  • "Imaginative solutions are called for to overcome this situation".

The report was agreed by Member States at the Working Party on Information on 23 May and presented to the June 2006 European Council.

The Government's view

49.7 In his 14 June Explanatory Memorandum, the Minister for Europe (Mr Geoffrey Hoon) says that as the report does not set out any proposals, there are therefore no policy implications for the UK. He also says that the UK submitted its response to the questionnaire to the Council Secretariat on 28 April, with comments against each of the eight headings. A copy is attached to his Explanatory Memorandum, and is at Annex A of this Report. The main features are:

—  Economic reform, globalisation, energy, security, counter-terrorism and organised crime as the key topics for discussion;

—  Information and communication activities designed to meet the needs of the whole population and focused on "providing accessible information and supporting a broad debate on the future direction of Europe";

—  A new website at www.europe.gov.uk., drawing on private sector expertise in design and copyrighting; using a route whereby experts and members of the public can send in their comments on economic reform, globalisation and enlargement; and including "some specific information for particular groups, e.g., young people, women and businesses";

—  Research to gauge public opinion and information needs, where, the Minister says, "minor criticism of the EU relates to concerns about an excessive and wasteful budget and associated bureaucracy"; and

—  Close co-operation with the European Commission and European Parliament UK representations, particularly on the Europe Direct project and in utilising Eurobarometer research.

The Minister says he will continue to co-operate with the Institutions in the UK, which has been HMG practice for a number of years, and is "open to exploring new forms of cooperation where these might be mutually beneficial".

Conclusion

49.8 As noted above, one of our bones of contention with the previous Minister of Europe was the paucity of his comments on the original Plan D Communication and, in this context, his failure to provide any indication of what the Government proposed to submit as its contribution to the synthesis of national debates. Now that we know that the UK contribution was submitted as long ago as last April, we continue to be puzzled; likewise as to why the present Minister of Europe made no reference to it in his May Explanatory Memorandum referred to above, on the Communication on the synthesis of national debates, or during the debate on Plan D — when, as we noted in our 14 June report, he continued to resist all entreaties to outline his views on the central issue to which all these activities relate, viz., the future of Europe.

49.9 We also note that, although the report was produced on 25 May, it was not deposited in the House until 4 July. We should be grateful if the Minister would explain this delay.

49.10 From what the Minister says, it would appear that UK activities have focussed more on what citizens want to discuss than has been the general case, where the picture in the report is of an élite talking to itself about matters that do not interest them, such as institutional issues, and of a decision-taking process "which is incomprehensible to many". Even though it is far from clear what the report means when it says that "a threat of demagogy exists when positive messages concerning Europe are launched in an abstract way", it is reassuring to hear that "Information based on real facts [sic] seems to have a positive impact".

49.11 It would also appear that the UK has endeavoured to avoid some of the pitfalls of using the Internet, to which the report refers so elliptically.

49.12 That said, we cannot agree that the report has no policy implications. On the contrary, it deals with some of the most highly political aspects of the future of Europe. Although the report makes appropriate references to greater involvement of citizens and new formats for presentation and discussion, there is a clear sense that politicians and opinion formers should retain control of the debate. There is also no consensus on what the "key messages" are, or on what constitutes "factual, accessible information". Suggestions that "Europe" should feature in school curricula and teacher training are highly controversial.

49.13 We therefore consider the report, which we now clear, as relevant to the debate that we have already recommended on "A Citizens Agenda — Delivering Results for Europe".

Annex 1 UK response to Presidency/General Secretariat questionnaire on Member State activities during the period of reflection

1. Types of projects

Since the June 2005 European Council Declaration on the EU Constitutional Treaty, the UK has undertaken a range of activities to support debate about the future direction of Europe. During the UK Presidency, activities ranged from the Hampton Court Summit and Sharing Power in Europe Conference, to publications, speeches and articles designed for a range of audiences.

In 2006, the UK launched a new website at www.europe.gov.uk and an updated 'Guide to the EU' publication. Both provide factual, accessible information on the EU and future of Europe debate, inviting the public to contribute views on issues such as enlargement, economic reform and globalisation. The UK Department for Trade and Industry has also produced a specialist publication 'Working with the EU' for business, consumers and employees. In addition the UK government is working in partnership with the European Commission (EC) to co-ordinate activities, including on the implementation of Plan D. In particular, the UK government is working with the EC on the Europe Direct project as well as feeding into research processes to assess public information needs.

2. Topics discussed

Discussion in the UK is wide-ranging but key topics currently include economic reform, tackling the challenges of globalisation, energy, security, counter-terrorism and organised crime the approach that all Europe's Heads of Government agreed at Hampton Court took during the UK Presidency. Online the future of Europe discussions focus on economic reform, globalisation and enlargement.

It would be difficult to centre national debates on specific questions due to the different nature of the debates in different countries. Any move to consider a common core of topics for national debates would have to consider national circumstances.

3. Messages

UK communication activities have focused on providing factual, accessible information and supporting a broad debate on the future direction of Europe.

4. Targeted public/audience

Overall UK government communication activities are designed to meet the needs of the whole population, including providing materials in accessible formats. For example, the new website is designed to cater for all but it also includes some specific information for particular groups, e.g. young people, women and businesses, under the 'EU and Me' section. It is intended that this section will expand over time to address the broad information needs of the UK public.

5. Citizens' expectations

The internet has proved a useful tool to obtain people's feedback and engage a broader cross section of the population in the future of Europe debate. Research to gauge public opinion and information needs has also been valuable in assessing citizens' expectations. Minor criticism of the EU relates to concerns about an excessive and wasteful budget and associated bureaucracy. One positive in the UK is that there is a desire for more factual information on the EU.

6. Using the internet

In April the UK launched a new interactive website on the EU and future of Europe debate at www.europe.gov.uk. An experienced, professional digital media agency was chosen to work on the project and have helped deliver a high quality product. One of the lessons we have learned from previous internet projects is the need to utilise the expertise of the private sector both in web development and copyrighting. Proper user research and testing is also vital in the development of a successful website. In terms of interactivity, we have chosen a route whereby experts and members of the public can send in their comments on particular future of Europe topics. We then publish a selection of those comments to reflect the broad nature of the debate. The website has only recently launched and we will continue to monitor and evaluate its progress.

7. Lessons learned

The most important aspect of the national debates has been the focus on improving two way communications between the EU, member states and its citizens. Ongoing communications activities aim to increase public awareness of the EU in the long-term. In the UK we have delivered a range of activities to improve information on the EU and future of Europe debate but we see this as part of an ongoing process to be built upon in the months and years ahead. The best way forward would be to continue to improve democracy, dialogue and debate in the EU and for all member states to build upon the good work that has been started in the past 12 months.

8. Co-operation with EU institutions

The UK government works closely with the European Commission and European Parliament UK representations. A particularly good relationship has developed on the Europe Direct project and in utilising Eurobarometer research. The UK government is keen to see further transfer of financial responsibilities to European Commission representations to improve joint working and more decisions devolved to representations. The UK would welcome more discussion on Plan D and is interested in feeding into any new communication initiatives at the earliest possible opportunity. Co-operation is best achieved at national, regional and local level and we welcome the principles in Plan D of 'Going local'.


121   See headnote. Back

122   Stg Co Deb, European Standing Committee, 23 May 2006, cols 3-36. Back

123   See headnote. Back


 
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