Wednesday 4 February 2009

EU Communications Strategy (Ireland), or, How should the public best be informed about European issues?

The European Commission plans to spend €1.8 million on a new communications strategy in Ireland, which will be specifically aimed at women, 16-30 year olds and those on lower income. Information about the EU is to be disseminated in several ways, of which:

"Blogging, cinema advertising, listening exercises and advertising in women’s and youth magazines are key parts".

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin MEP and a prominent figure of the Anti-Lisbon campaign, has called this new initiative "propaganda", noting that this strategy is set out explicitly to target the sections of society which tended to vote no in the June Referendum. The Commission has countered that the publicity campaign will be rolled out after the referendum.

So how far should the Commission - or any other EU institution for that matter - be involved in publicity or information campaigns? There is a lack of public knowledge of how the EU works and what it does (and both have very complicated answers), largely due the way the media works. In the absence of national media reporting on EU affairs (especially when legislation is being drawn up/considered when people can get into contact with MPs and MEPs to try and influence the process, instead of merely pronouncing the end result occasionally), and when national parties and governments devote little time to European issues, then it is left to the EP and Commission to disseminate information about the EU.

Ideally the parties in the EP would provide this function, but their fragmented nature and the fragmented and nationalised nature of European debate during EP elections has meant that the EP groups have not been able to preform the "educational" function that political parties are normally supposed to preform.

This leaves the Commission to fill the gap, though it is not noted for its success in this area. The Commissioner for Communication, Margot Wallstroem has made some good moves, including setting up her own blog, but in general the Commission has been severely lacking in providing political leadership for the EU. Arguably this not the role of the Commission. The European Council is tasked with the political leadership of the EU in the Treaties but the Commission is a guardian of the Treaties, and this has led to the Commission in some ways styling itself as the "guardian of the European ideal" since it is the institution that is meant to represent the common European interest.

So the Commission is trying in some small ways to engage people more in the EU, an effort which (as far as I can see) is mostly carried out on the internet. The internet is a great communication tool, but for engaging people in political debate I would still prize the traditional media over it - the internet is an area for people with similar interests (even if they hold opposing viewpoints) to voice their opinions, get information and debate, but I'm very sceptical of its worth in drawing more people in to debate European issues. Judging by Wallstroem's comments that the politicisation of the Commission is a good thing, the Commission does seek to some extent a leading political role in the European debate (or in generating one). But on this count it has failed: Commissioners have not made themselves more visible in national-European discourses - especially Barroso, whose invisibility during the Constitution and Lisbon referendum campaigns as well as generally despite being head of the Commission has sparked the online "Anyone But Barroso" campaign.

Having the position of the Commission President electable by the EP (or better yet, directly by the people), would be a good way of using politicisation to encourage political debate and awareness. However the political will in the case of the EP needs to be there (and in the absence of any EP group putting a candidate forward, it clearly isn't there yet) and though having a single electable post would put institutional/political pressure for debate, the lack of a very informed and informing media would hinder a lot of the initial interest, and could seriously weaken the effectiveness of this aspect.* Simply tinkering with institutional balances won't have much affect on debate either, as can be seen from the declining EP election turnouts.

The criticism of any Commission attempt to promote awareness of the EU and its affects (which are criticised as opaque) is that it is only pushing its own agenda, that it's only producing "propaganda". European issues are perhaps the only political area where opinions can be classified as foreign or propaganda, and then dismissed from the debate altogether. This is worrying. Governments and governing parties all release information and have publicity campaigns on their policies and their opinions and views are contested by those who disagree - and this leads to debate (and hopefully increases public understanding of the issues). Official information, opinions and policies all carry assumptions and agendas behind them - all information and forms of media and debate do, so it's hardly special - but it is wrong to simply dismiss them out of hand and not engage them.

McDonald is right when she says that this initiative is not dialogue, but she misses the point. The only dialogue that the Commission can stimulate is by inviting statements of opinion - which would end up being a focus group type of "dialogue". Imagine an Ireland, or any European country, where the political parties refuse to debate the issues with each other, so that the government resorts to asking (only) focus groups and interest groups their opinions and then goes about its business. In order to engage in a debate, you must at least know what the opinion of each side is, what they claim the facts are. Then you debate, dispute, disagree - engage! By dismissing not just what the Commission says, but indeed what any politician or group from outside the country says as being irrelevant and even unworthy of consideration due to bias, propaganda, "them being foreigners", etc., McDonald and politicians who accept this political culture or use it to their political advantage are smothering the possibility of debate at birth.

Anyway, the Commission apparently spent €650,000 on its communications plan in Ireland last year, and I'm willing to bet that it had no impact whatsoever (I certainly didn't notice it, and I'm interested in this sort of thing!). Just over doubling it may (theoretically) double its impact, but I'd say it would just upgrade "no impact whatsoever" to "next to no impact whatsoever". If McDonald is worried about propaganda, then she can rest easy.

*I will try to post about the media and its role in European debate later, either as an issue on its own or together with institutional factors.

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