Debate Europe and Communicating Europe in Partnership

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Mr. Francois: I cannot give a country-by-country breakdown, but I can assure my hon. Friend that Ireland is getting a great deal of attention from its European partners, and there must be some reason for that.
The motion asks us to welcome
“the measures taken to further improve the co-ordination of the European Union’s work on communicating with the public”,
but that would mean helping to ratify the treaty of Lisbon, to which the Conservatives are firmly opposed. The people of this country were promised a referendum on the treaty, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats denied them that. For those reasons, we will oppose the motion.
5.40 pm
Jo Swinson: I am positive about Europe and the European Union, and the role that they can play in making our constituents’ lives better. On certain issues of the day, such as tackling international crime or climate change, solutions have to come at a European level, and some matters must be taken even further, with more global agreement sought. It was therefore with despair that I received these 190 pages of documentation, which are, as the right hon. Member for Wells pointed out, filled with phrases such as “communications multipliers” that hardly roll off the tongue and are not immediately easy to understand.
It is a shame that the EU’s approach to improving communication has demonstrated some of the things that most need to change about the way in which Europe works. The process seems to be all about bureaucracy and producing dry, turgid documents, rather than being dynamic and engaging people in a way that will make them feel positive about Europe and give them an opportunity to have a say and make their voices heard.
Page 21 of the document says that the period of reflection and engagement on this issue between June 2005 to June 2007 was meant to
“encourage Member States to organise a broad public debate on the future of the European Union involving citizens, civil society, social partners, national parliaments and political parties”.
My problem with the process is that it has been carried out in such an uninspiring and bureaucratic way that even people who are passionate about how Europe can improve our lives have found it less than inspiring. I appreciate that it is not easy to conduct a debate among 700 million people, but the Government should be taking a lead in the UK on promoting the benefits of Europe. They should point out that the EU has delivered on consumer protection in relation to mobile phone charges, and on international crime such as people trafficking and terrorism. The EU emissions trading scheme is leading the way for the rest of the world on environmental protection and tackling climate change.
There are still problems in Europe that we cannot shy away from. People who are pro-European sometimes fall into the trap of saying that everything about Europe is wonderful, yet there still is not enough focus on the democratic institutions, and there is too much centralisation of power among the unaccountable parts of Europe. Those problems must be tackled and debated with the money that is being put forward for such a purpose. The process cannot be just about selling the EU and its benefits; it must also be about considering the problems and finding solutions.
I believe that Britain needs to be at the heart of Europe, but the Government need to lead the debate on that. So far, there has not been anything like the kind of open, public debate that we need to have in this country. My priority is to propose a way of having that debate: we should have a referendum on whether Britain’s future should be within or outwith the EU. I appreciate that that would not qualify for the funding as described in the documents, but it is certainly something that the Government could take up. That would be one mechanism for having the debate, but the Government may prefer to do it another way. Whatever the mechanism, I would like them to take the lead and have that debate.
For that reason, I therefore reluctantly support the Government’s motion. I emphasise the word “reluctantly” because although, as the Minister said, this is a start on better communication about Europe, the communication does not go nearly far enough, and the Government must do much better.
5.45 pm
Things like anthems, Europe days, flags and plan Ds will not do the job. Incidentally, what happened to plans A, B and C? I do not remember them, but we are now on plan D. There is absolutely no indication that the public are learning to love Brussels. In fact, on average, the turnout in European Parliament elections has fallen in each and every election since the initial one in 1979. As has been said several times, the EU really is not working, but we are spending an awful lot of money on it.
Rather than analysing the effectiveness and fairness of existing expenditure, the Government are happy to wave through another €88 million. We will not get an assessment of the results of that expenditure until September 2009. In the month in which the EU accounts have been rejected by the auditors for the 14th year in a row, does the Minister really think that that is a clever way of using taxpayers’ money, particularly as we are entering a recession?
Of course, there have been regular assessments of public opinion—at least in other member states. They were called national referendums, but the Commission did not like the results. The simplest way to ask this country whether it wants to move forward with the treaty is to have the promised referendum.
The Minister said that a private organisation might be able to apply for some of the money on a case-by-case basis, but I will let her in on a secret. There is absolutely no way that any organisation in Ireland or any other country will ever receive money to fight an official referendum—or, in this country, to hold one. Referendums that deliver the wrong result do not receive EU funding.
In the light of last week’s debate on the Floor of the House, I suggest to the Minister that if she really wants to do something about public understanding, she could make a start by opening up the European Scrutiny Committee to public view. I am a member of it, and other members of this Committee are past or current members. It is absurd that she says that her aim and that of Europe is to increase public participation when we keep people out of the Committee that deals with documents such as those that we are considering. That really is the height of hypocrisy.
The Minister was noticeably weak on what is actually meant by things such as Europe Direct centres and European public spaces. There is a clue in the documents. Apparently, a European public space is a meeting point for Europeans. If we are to have one in this country, it will be a place for
“films, debates, forums and lectures”.
The only thing is that a person has to be European to use it, so they have to produce their passport at the door. Is that really worth a great deal of public expenditure? Our net contribution to the European Union budget will soon increase to £6 billion a year. Is there not some modest reform that the Government could bring in? We really do not want to fund a European public space in London with foreigners kept out and stopped from seeing hosted exhibitions and films.
The aim of promoting what is called active European citizenship runs right through these documents. We are all familiar with the concept of citizenship. It is about entitlement, and it not an active concept because that implies obligations. Under the existing EU treaties, we are all citizens of the European Union, but that does not create a requirement for us or something that we have to do. It is therefore perfectly obvious that the concept of active citizenship goes beyond that and that organisations applying for funding that take any other view about what is required of the European citizen will not receive the funds. That gives the game away. These proposals are a distorted form of propaganda at public expense. The Minister’s remarks and answers so far have shown that she has not understood the true nature of this initiative.
5.51 pm
Caroline Flint: I thank hon. Members for a number of interesting observations. Over the weeks and months ahead, I will look more closely not only at what the European Union can offer in terms of access to information, but at the ways in which Departments can provide factual information on what we gain from our EU membership and on the things that affect people’s lives. That is important because people have strong views about the European Union. It is not my mission to try to get British people or anyone else from within the EU to love the EU as an institution. There are some exceptions, but generally there are few institutions that people love—even the beloved BBC is getting a hammering.
I want to contribute to a better understanding of how the EU adds value to our daily lives and what we gain from our membership. An example of that is the way in which the EU member states have worked together on the financial situation. We have some important decisions on climate change to make in the EU towards the end of the year. That will have an impact on the EU’s strength and role in terms of global discussions on climate change with the USA, China and India. Of course, there are other issues to consider. The energy review document was published last week. British people are concerned about fuel prices, and that is important in relation to where fuel comes from and how secure our fuel supply is in the short and long term. The ability of the EU to add value to what we can achieve nationally is important, as I have said.
Some people—I would not suggest that it is anyone on the Committee—do not believe we should be members of the European Union, whatever is said to them. It does not matter what the European Union does. When it makes mistakes, they do not accept that it also does good. People need to be honest about that in their deliberations and their contributions to the debate. I would not for one instance suggest that the EU gets it right all the time or that it cannot improve. However, as a Minister, I feel that we need to consider that too. Whether someone is a local councillor or an MP, they should always look for ways to make improvements.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asked why three Europe Direct centres had closed. The information that I have to hand advises me that Europe Direct centres, which come in many forms, as I have explained, are required to meet certain standards and fulfil contractual obligations. I understand that the three centres concerned did not do so. I hope that she will agree that that shows that quality control mechanisms are in place. The Commission office provides advice on best practice and administration when offices are closed. The closures are a result of looking at the offices and perhaps finding them wanting. That is the only information that I have to hand.
The hon. Lady also talked about monitoring and assessing the engagement that has already taken place. It is important that we evaluate and assess for successive projects, and that there is learning with regard to future bids when projects do not work well. As I said, the Commission is evaluating in detail the seven projects funded under the Debate Europe initiative for 2007-08. That was one of the reasons why it decided not to go for another round in 2008-09; it wanted to have time to evaluate how the programme had worked in the previous year. That is sensible, and hopefully we will learn from that evaluation for 2009-10, should the opportunity be available again. We support that action and have said that we wish to be involved in looking at how well the projects worked in the UK.
The Commission is also committed to extensive independent evaluation of the projects funded under Debate Europe. The provider of the money will not necessarily be doing the assessment; there will be independent evaluation. I do not know who will do it, but I am happy to provide the Committee with more information on that.
The right hon. Member for Wells talked about the joint public spaces—where they are and how much they cost. There are no joint public spaces in the UK. As I said, they usually exist where the Commission and Parliament offices are co-located, the idea being that since they are co-located there is an opportunity for them to look at how they provide information. They can perhaps run exhibitions, in which members of the public can engage and take part, or use their offices as an opportunity to have schoolchildren or young people in. Again, the emphasis is on avoiding duplication and reducing costs, and I cannot see that as a bad thing. However, there is no joint public space in London atthe moment; it does not cost anything because it does not exist.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh asked about the documents. I have said that I will try to ensure that what happened today does not happen again. There were some issues between our officials and the Committee about the provision of the documents. There was an attempt to get them earlier, but there was a discussion about the format and how they should be brought forward and that, I think, created delays. What we learn from that is that we need to be clearer about what the format is much earlier in the proceedings, to ensure that we get it right first time. I will endeavour to ensure that that is corrected for the future.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about the proposal for IIA. The Government and my predecessor agreed that an IIA raised legal concerns. The Council legal service was asked for its advice, which was that an IIA binding the institutions legally would require a legal framework, as he noted. We agree with that advice. We have instead agreed to adopt only political conclusions, which have no legal status and are therefore not legally binding. Those conclusions contain a political commitment for the EU institutions to improve communications, which is useful, and to have access to fair but diverse information about the EU. In answer to his earlier question, there is no legal status; I am sorry that I could not give a clearer response before.
The hon. Gentleman also made the point about schools information being unbiased and not expressing only the Commission vision for Europe. The programme is not about promoting a Commission vision for Europe. The award criteria state clearly that projects should
“allow a variety of opinions to be expressed (without excluding any opinions)”.
That is healthy for the debates that we need to have.
Points were made about polling. We all know about polling in our respective parties, and the hon. Gentleman gave an example that could be described as a focus group. It was good to hear that he shares the view that using polls is not in itself a bad thing, but that they need to be based on real evidence and on what works. I agree, as did my predecessor, that there are some weaknesses in Eurobarometer. The Commission recognises that too, and “Communicating Europe in Partnership” contains proposals to improve it. I hope to look into that, too, in more detail.
Treaty ratification was raised. It is a matter for each member state, according to its own constitution, law and traditions. As we have said on many occasions, the Irish decision is a matter for the Irish Government and people. The communication programme is about explaining and debating how the EU can make a difference, given its existing tasks and competences. It is not about new powers, including those in the Lisbon treaty.
Finally, I wish to follow up on a point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. One problem in coming into this job has been that documents such as those in the official bundle before us are worded in such a way as to take account of the fact that we have 27 member states. On one level, the language is therefore not the most accessible, because of the task of ensuring that it keeps its meaning when it is translated. That is important to ensure that we all understand the legal or other basis of the documentation. I would be worried if I had to use such documents in my constituency as a way of expressing in plain English what the European Union is about. We should look at ourselves: plenty of documents in the House would be pretty hard for people to work through if they were in the public domain. Legislation has to be written with legal competence so that lawyers, not ordinary citizens down the road, will be able to judge whether it is being implemented properly. We have to live with that.
The key issue for me is how to translate the language for lawyers, which ensures that everything is above board, into the language that we use every day with our constituents, families, friends and colleagues. I am interested in that because some of the very good things that the EU contributes get lost in translation. If documents such as these were the only basis for people to understand the EU, we would be rather worried. However, a document such as “50 Ways Forward” is in accessible English and is very clear and factual about some of the things that the EU has done. It could be used by many right hon. and hon. Members to initiate debates in the communities that they represent.
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