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House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
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European Standing Committee Debates

Debate Europe and Communicating Europe in Partnership

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Robert Key
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Flint, Caroline (Minister for Europe)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells) (Con)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Moss, Mr. Malcolm (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Mullin, Mr. Chris (Sunderland, South) (Lab)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Committee B

Monday 17 November 2008

[Robert Key in the Chair]

Debate Europe and Communicating Europe in Partnership

4.30 pm
The Chairman: Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to this Committee?
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): I have been asked to explain a little of the background to the documents and why the Committee recommended them for debate in this Committee.
The first European Commission communication, “Communicating Europe in Partnership”, followed up a February 2006 White Paper on European communications strategy. Following the May and June 2005 referendums in Holland and France on the constitutional treaty, it was about improving the way in which Europe communicates with citizens. The document discussed possible improvements under four broad headings: coherent and integrated communication, empowering citizens, developing a European public sphere and reinforcing the partnership approach, and it contained a proposal for a formal inter-institutional agreement on “Communicating Europe in Partnership”. The stated overall objective of the communication was
“to strengthen coherence and synergies between the activities undertaken by the different EU institutions and by Member States”.
Another initiative was the Commission communication of October 2005 on the “Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate” programme. Its stated aims were
“‘listening better’, ‘explaining better’ and ‘going local’ to engage”
European citizens. It was debated in the European Standing Committee in May 2006. The reflection period that followed the rejection of the constitution by France and Holland came to an end in June 2007, when the European Council agreed a mandate for a new intergovernmental conference, which led to the Lisbon treaty. The further communication before us reviewed plan D and set out how the Commission intended to build on it through “Debate Europe—building on the experience of Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate”, taking the process of citizen dialogue one step further and focusing on enabling citizens to articulate their wishes directly to decision makers and on making better use of the media, particularly the internet, in the process.
The Council’s decision to drop the notion of a formal inter-institutional agreement removed one of the more contentious elements. However, beginning with the first communication and continuing with the subsequent one, the European Scrutiny Committee has been concerned that the playing field be levelled, so that the funding of some €88 million is available to enable discussion of competing visions of how the EU should develop, not just those endorsed by the Commission. Specifically, the Committee asked whether it would be possible for a private organisation to apply for, and obtain, funding to carry out its own assessment of public opinion, including through a national referendum on treaty changes.
Despite assurances from the Commission and the Government on both the general and specific issues, neither the Commission nor the Minister satisfied the Committee that the Commission was genuinely open-minded about the type of proposal that it was willing to support. That being so, the Committee felt that the House should have the opportunity to debate the Commission’s approach to informing the European public and engaging them in debating European issues.
4.34 pm
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): This is the first Committee in which I have had the pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I look forward to future such occasions.
I thank the right hon. Member for Wells for his introductory statement and the European Scrutiny Committee and the Lords European Union Select Committee for their continuing contributions to enhancing the accountability of the EU’s work. I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate with right hon. and hon. Members how the EU and member states can work together on communicating what the EU does, and in particular the Commission documents, “Communicating Europe in Partnership” and “Debate Europe”.
The proposals are part of the much wider challenge of improving the accountability of EU institutions by ensuring that people have the information that they need to assess critically what the EU does. I want the European Union to be a normal part of political debate in this country—not uncritical debate, but genuine, informed debate such as we have on any other political issues—which moves beyond what sometimes feels like a tussle between Europhiles and Eurosceptics, and instead talks more about how to ensure that the EU delivers what it has been asked to do.
Fundamentally, the EU is a means by which we, the national Government, can deliver better for our citizens on a range of issues that concern them—for example, tackling the economic downturn, climate change, migration, counter-terrorism and, of course, cross-border crime. As a former Home Office Minister, I spent a huge amount of time on justice and home affairs issues and dealt with concerns about how organised crime recognises no national boundaries. I know how important that work by the EU is and how it adds value to what our police forces can do at local, regional and national level.
Informed debate requires citizens to have easy access to information about action that we take through the European Union, so that they can see how that action impacts on their daily lives. That challenge goes much wider than the documents before us, but I shall start with those proposals. In June 2005, the Commission published “Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate”. That was followed in October 2007 by “Communicating Europe in Partnership” and in April 2008 by “Debate Europe”. The Committee will be aware from the scrutiny process so far that the Government believe that the aim of “Debate Europe” to focus on debate and
“further enabling citizens to articulate their wishes directly to decision-makers”
is positive. It is right that the EU should listen to and engage with citizens.
I was pleased that the Committee agreed in its conclusions of 18 June 2008 with the aims of the Debate Europe initiative. However, it asked whether the Commission is genuinely—this was emphasised by the right hon. Gentleman—open-minded about the sort of project that it is willing to support through Debate Europe, and whether the Commission document excludes alternative visions of how the EU should develop. We took up those concerns with the Commission, which assured us that it will work with any group—other than political parties, because they are provided for by other means within the European Union and the European Parliament—provided the proposed activities include a range of voices. The criteria for funding include a requirement that projects allow a variety of opinions to be expressed without excluding any opinions.
The evidence from the project to which the Commission gave grant funding under plan D in 2007-08 is that it genuinely wishes to encourage debate and dialogue. Of the seven that it funded in the UK, one provided funding for a non-governmental organisation to empower young people to question EU policy on climate change, and to petition leaders for changes.
The Committee also asked whether, under the principles outlined in the communications, it would be possible for a private organisation to apply for and obtain funding to carry out its own assessment of public opinion, including via a national referendum on treaty changes. Again, we asked the Commission about that. The main criterion for grant funding under the Debate Europe budget line is consistency of the overall concept of the project within the objectives of the Debate Europe initiative. Those objectives are to obtain citizens’ views on EU issues that impact directly on their lives, to encourage them to become more informed about EU issues, and to discuss and debate them with local opinion-formers. That means the necessity to engage with people on matters on which the EU makes a difference to their daily lives, whether jobs, energy prices, crime or consumer rights. Debate Europe is not about discussing the institutional and often political questions about how the EU should be doing its work, so it is unlikely that a project that seeks to debate possible treaty changes, or whether the UK should leave the EU, would be a priority for the sort of funding outlined in the documents before us.
“Communicating Europe in Partnership” is aimed at providing a more systematic framework for communications work. It includes proposals for Commission staff to have more contact with the public and the media, to improve the Europe Direct centre network, and to strengthen the Eurobarometer opinion polling system to improve the EU’s ability to listen to its citizens. The Government welcome the concept of openness underlying the proposals, and I was pleased to note the European Scrutiny Committee’s observations in its conclusions of 7 November 2007:
“There is plainly nothing remiss with the notion of integrating the communication activities of the various Commission departments as effectively and coherently as possible.”
I completely agree.
Member states finalised a set of communications guidelines on 22 October 2008. The crucial steer from member states was that
“information and communication activities...should give everyone access to fair and diverse information about the European Union and enable citizens... to express their views and to participate actively in the public debate on European Union issues.”
The documents before us aim to provide a framework under which EU bodies can co-operate and engage citizens in genuine debate. That must be the right aim, but it is only a start. Promoting openness, transparency and genuine debate is only partly about specific, small-scale information initiatives; it is also about debating the EU’s legitimate role in any policy area in which it can add value. When we discuss how to tackle climate change in Parliament, through the media or at a regional and local level, the EU should be part of that debate, because we cannot solve the problem of climate change on our own. Similarly, in debates on tackling the economic downturn, on energy security and on migration, people increasingly discuss the EU’s proper role in those matters. There will be different views in the Committee on where precisely the EU can add value, and some might feel that it is not effective, or that it needs to improve. That element of the debate is real and we should not shy away from it. That is what it means to make the EU a part of normal politics.
We examined the Lisbon treaty in detail in the last parliamentary Session. I know that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) felt that the BBC should have given more prominence to those debates, but there was widespread public interest and increasing awareness of the implications for the UK. Last week, I met Margot Wallström, the EU’s Communications Commissioner, and agreed with her that communication within Europe is primarily a national challenge and responsibility. We in Government could be better at communicating what we do through the EU, but the EU institutions could also do more. I plan to engage further with the Commission and its office in London in the coming weeks to see how that could be improved. I am particularly keen to work with it on decentralised grant funding for Debate Europe projects for 2009-10. The Commission has provided grant funding to seven projects run by civil society in 2007-08, and it is in the process of evaluating those before deciding whether to ask for bids for projects in 2009-10. I am keen to work with it on that.
Some people do not want to be part of genuinely informing the public about this subject. Instead of facts, they prefer myths and prejudices, but my approach is one of realism. The EU has delivered enormous benefits for the UK. I am not asking anyone to love the institutions—I wonder how many of us really love any institution, including this one—but I hope to help people to understand that we are stronger in the EU, and that it can add real value to what national Governments do. That is the challenge that I have set for myself.
In conclusion, I hope that the Committee agrees that the documents are a start on improving the way in which the EU communicates with citizens. However, both we and the EU institutions need to do more, and I look forward to hearing the Committee’s views on how we can promote a genuine, informed debate.
The Chairman: Before we consider the motion, we have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind Committee members that they should be brief, and that it is open to a Member, subject to my discretion, to ask a series of related questions one after the other.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. In the last century, I served in the Territorial Army, and I spent many a happy weekend running around getting cold and wet in your constituency, so I am delighted to be in front of you in the bone dry this evening.
I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for forwarding these important documents to us for debate, and I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to her new role. I am sure that we will have many interesting debates in the next few months. I hope that she will forgive me if I begin on a slightly discordant note.
One of the documents that we are debating is entitled “Communicating Europe in Partnership”, and the Minister has stressed her desire to improve that process. So, procedurally, why is it that for most members of this Committee, who are not on the European Scrutiny Committee, the document bundle, which is fractionally under 200 pages, was only available from the Vote Office late Thursday afternoon when most hon. Members were about to return to their constituencies—even though we would have to debate those 200 pages on Monday?
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Prepared 18 November 2008