Select Committee on European Union Written Evidence

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 Parliament.

  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 directly.

  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 Parliament.

  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 issues.

  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 model—the New Ireland Forum—established 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 process.

  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 European Union.

  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 EP-issue.

  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

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