Memorandum from Dermot Scott, Director
of the European Parliament UK Office (Memorandum
submitted in a personal capacity)
You have posed two main questions:
1. is there a role for the Committee in ensuring
that matters relating to the European Union are clearly and objectively
explained to the citizen
2. whether such a role would be appropriate.
and you refer to general initiatives affecting
national parliaments, to UK initiatives and to initiatives in
Denmark, Sweden and Ireland.
The present note is intended to give personal impressions
of the role and effectiveness of the Danish, Swedish and Irish
initiatives, as seen from the vantage point of an official in
an EU Office. It is a personal note and does not commit the European
I do not consider that it is for me to advise
on the appropriateness or otherwise of such a role for your committee.
However, in the event that the EU Committee decided that it could
play a role in the dissemination of information, there could be
welcome scope for co-operation with the Offices of the European
institutions in the UK.
It is apparent that there is room for everyone
to contribute to clear and objective explanation of EU matters.
It is true, as your Call for Evidence hints, that there is no
real shortage of information. The EU institutions are notoriously
open and, in the limited areas where they are not formally open,
informally often quite transparent.
Some considerations are as follows:
the extent to which the Committee
can act as an educator for the body politic, in particular for
Peers and MPs, on matters European.
secondly, the question of how it
can optimally engage the media, national and regional, written
and broadcast, specialist and general.
thirdly, engagement of the interest
of civil society, in particular of the relatively powerful single-interest
groups and NGOs which form such a mobilising force in society.
fourthly, engaging the general public
Raising the level of understanding of specific
EU matters (rather than the In/Out question) in the Palace of
Westminster would undoubtedly raise the level of debate and might
consequently trickle down into media and public interest. It is
apparently rare for EU legislative matters, even those referred
by the Commons Committee, to reach the floor of that House. This
must partly reflect the low level of knowledge, and possibly the
feeling of powerlessness, of MPs faced with dealing with proposals
forwarded by the Council. Topical examples are the Services Directive,
the Working-time Directive and the Port Services Directive. The
House of Lords appears less prone to such factors.
Engagement of national parliamentarians in EU
matters may also be a matter of encouraging them to take part
in meetings with their opposite numbers in parliaments of other
Member States. Such opportunities occur in COSAC, in exchanges
of visits and in attendance at committee meetings of the European
If EU matters are largely neglected by the political
class they will tend to be ignored by the media. Then later, when
the domestic implications of a legislative proposal become manifest
as the Directive falls to be implemented, they come as a surprise,
often unwelcome and misunderstood, and are excoriated in the press.
Engaging the attention of the media is thus a major challenge.
Yet, once made aware of the possible implications
of proposals, specialist media and broadcast programmes can be
interested in informing their readers and subscribers; regional
media can be interested in following the involvement of local
politicians and MEPs; and the national press can often be steered
away from mistaken or knee-jerk hostility. If a genuine political
debate takes place on the merits of the proposal, it may prove
attractive; at least it will tend to reduce the level of ignorance.
Engaging civil society is comparatively easy.
Many organisations, local authorities, NGOs, business and professional
bodies are well-informed and active on EU matters. They will often
welcome approaches to inform or engage them on EU matters. A targeted
and tailored approach on specific topics, via the political arena,
the media and through direct contact with large membership organisations,
civil society and NGOs, offers better possibilities than attempts
to make direct contact with large numbers of people on broad-brush
Reaching the general public directly is the
most difficult challenge. The large political meeting is a thing
of the past. Meetings tend to attract the elite or those with
an axe to grind, and leave the ordinary punter unmoved. People
get their political information from television, the internet,
the press and a host of supplementary sources. As new technology
and the digital era of communications rapidly advance, the targeting
of sectors and individuals with information of direct relevance
to their interests is set to grow and become the norm.
Engaging the general public en masse may thus
not merit great effort. We have seen in recent years, for instance
with the Iraq War and with fox-hunting that, when an issue is
of sufficiently general application and has emotional, economic
and moral importance, the constituency for and against is as strong
as ever. So much of the work of Parliaments today at whatever
level is highly technical and cannot be for the general public
but is of immense concern to specific groups and lobbies. Ensuring
the consultation process is as open and transparent as possible,
that legislators have the technical expertise and resources to
help them in the balance of decision-making and drafting are of
primary importance in a modern democracy.
Bearing these considerations in mind, the experience
of the Danish, Swedish and Irish initiatives is interesting. I
have knowledge of the Irish experience only, and have some idea
of the role, function and effectiveness of the Nordic initiatives
from discussions with my colleagues in those Member States.
The Irish National Forum on Europe was established
in the wake of the defeat of the Irish referendum on the Nice
Treaty, and it followed the modelthe New Ireland Forumestablished
in the mid-1980s, and later the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation
that was active from 1994-96.
The purpose of the former was to consider on
an all-party basis what possible avenues were open to a solution
of the problem in Northern Ireland; while that of the latter was
partly to attempt to engage Sinn Fein in the normal political
Some 70 per cent of the Irish public claim to
have heard of the Forum. Conceivably this high figure results
from confusion with earlier Forums. It is questionable whether
the present Forum has made a significant impact on public opinion
by raising levels of awareness or knowledge among people who are
not already interested.
However, for people with a genuine interest
in European affairs, attendance at plenary sessions and/or regional
meetings is straightforward. At regional meetings it is easy to
take the floor/make your point/ask your question. The Forum has
recently issued a call for submissions from the public and will
hold a submissions day in the next few months when people will
be invited to give presentations. This has been done at least
once before. So: for interested people, the Forum does provide
a good locus for engagement.
The Forum's regional meetings were well attended
as the presumed date of the Irish referendum on the EU Constitution
approached in 2005 but attendance diminished after the No votes
in France and the Netherlands. The Forum is holding a series of
regional meetings in 2006, making a concerted effort to link up
on a local/regional basis with local organisations/NGOs/civil
society, such as local branches of Young Farmers, Irish Countrywomen's
Association and Chambers of Commerce. The meetings will still
of course be open to all. Whether this will be more successful
remains to be seen, but it seems a sensible way to combat the
decline in attendance, and if it changes the focus from the citizen
to the organisation, that may be only a recognition of reality.
Formally these matters are a decision of the
Chairman and his secretariat, both of whom are entirely independent.
Political parties have their say on decisions through the Forum's
Steering Committee on which they are all represented and which
meets about monthly. It appears that no member of the Forum has
seriously questioned the Chairman's impartiality and the Government
parties, especially Fianna Fail, have had good exposure, while
"antis" such as Sinn Fe«in and the Greens get at
least their fair share of time. At the outset the main opposition
party, Fine Gael, did not wish to take part, saying that the European
Affairs Committee of Oireachtas was a more appropriate forum for
debate on EU matters. But they are now fully on board.
The Forum's budget is 1.49 million, and
they enjoy free premises in Dublin Castle. Media coverage is patchy:
the Irish Times gives good coverage, the Irish Independent
less, though local/regional press coverage for regional meetings
is better. Television and radio coverage is rare.
The Swedish and Danish Parliaments have established
EU Information Centres; I am aware that your Committee has already
heard from the director of the Danish centre.
My colleagues consider these centres to be reliable
and credible sources of politically impartial information on EU
affairs and, in the Swedish case, on Swedish membership of the
The Swedish centre operates an enquiry service,
and provides web information and printed information; it organises
courses and training programmes for journalists, teachers and
other "multipliers", either on its own or in cooperation
with others such as the European Parliament Office in Sweden.
The Information Centre's main target is the
general public. According to a survey that was carried out in
November 2005, 32 per cent of "clients" belonged to
this category. The other main groups of clients include local
authorities, businesses, students, and the Riksdag and Government
offices. The EP Office frequently refers questions to the Centre
and is not aware of negative reaction to its services.
The web site is the main source of information.
It includes a section with news, another with facts and another
called Sweden in the EU. The website has a service where it is
possible to follow the progress of an EU decision with links to
relevant documents. It also has a section called You and the EU
providing information on travelling and moving in the EU.
The Centre has a toll-free number open daily
(9-11 am and 2-4 pm). In a normal year the Information Centre
receives around 9000 questions. The year of the EMU-referendum
the Centre received some 16000 questions.
The EP Office co-operates closely with the Centre
and has recently co-arranged three regional journalists' seminars
and four EU for Teachers training courses across the country.
It appears that the Centre has been successful
in navigating between the different agendas of the Riksdag's political
parties simply by being professional and knowledgeable about the
issues on which it informs the public.
The Danish EU Centre is regarded by the EU institutions
as an extremely valuable and helpful supplement and as a trustworthy
and reliable partner.
As an integrated part of the Folketing and of
the Committee of European Affairs, they have quick access to relevant
information. They have a good overview of the flow of EU documents
and of the implementation of EU law into Danish law, which is
what most citizens are interested in. The EU Office links to their
excellent homepage and refers to them without hesitation; they
consult the EP Office when they require assistance on a tricky
The Centre has an excellent track record of
political impartiality, independent of Government intervention
and politically supervised by the information sub-committee of
the Committee of European Affairs.
For this reason they were to be the main actor
in the now postponed or cancelled information campaign on the
Constitution referendum in Denmark. Moreover, they can act more
quickly and flexibly than the EU Offices, as they are not subject
to the EU's stringent Financial Regulations.
My impression therefore is that the experience
so far has been entirely positive.
It appears that the Irish Forum experience is
successful in engaging Irish political parties, interest groups
and enthusiasts for the European debate, pro and contra. Its ability
to engage the media and the general public is less certain, and
may depend on the circumstances of the time, for instance, the
proximity of a call to the polling station.
The EU Information Centres in Sweden and Denmark
may perform better at direct engagement with the individual citizen
and with his or her queries. But again, the citizens' desire to
enquire may itself depend on the imminence of an election or referendum.
Both solutions offer useful lessons and are
to be welcomed. Neither offers a complete solution to the problem
of engaging and informing the citizen on EU issues. Reaching the
individual citizen is extremely difficult, though this is of course
true of most messages, political or other. One only has to reflect
on the funds spent by major advertisers in promoting their brands
to appreciate the difficulty of reaching the citizen and, once
obtained, the fickleness of the citizen's recognition.
It may therefore be more realistic to confine
one's effort to attempting to engage the media and the host of
representative organisations and associations, hoping thereby
to reach at least the potentially-interested individual.
6 February 2006