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10.1.  The information deficit of the Union

  1. Information efforts of the European institutions
  2. The deficiencies of EU's information activities
  3. The need for a European communication policy

Although they are well disposed towards European integration, most citizens either ignore its achievements or take them for granted. In the Eurobarometer surveys, three fourths of the citizens say that they are not well informed about the institutions and policies of the European Union. It is interesting to note that good information greatly enhances the positive attitude of the public towards European integration. Indeed, two out of three citizens who claim to be well informed have a positive image of the EU as against one out of three who admit to being ill informed. Furthermore, 62% of respondents with a good knowledge of the European Union consider that their country's membership of the EU is a good thing, compared with 32% who are less knowledgeable. Likewise, 80% of those who have a positive image of the EU believe that their country has benefited from its membership in it, compared with only 10% of those whose perception of the European Union is negative. One can conclude that the citizens who are badly informed on European affairs tend to have a bad opinion about the EU. The problem is that the latter are the great majority in the 27 Member States. Indeed, more than 80% of respondents feel that their compatriots have an important information deficit about European political matters.

It is also interesting to note that three out of four citizens would like to be better informed about the EU and 86% support the notion that children should be taught in school about the way European Union institutions work. Civic education on EU institutions is even the first priority theme for the very large majority of Europeans [Eurobarometer 44]. Apparently, the citizens are aware that something important is happening in Europe, in which they cannot participate for lack of general knowledge and day-to-day information and they call for better access to European affairs for themselves and their children.

The information deficit, acknowledged by the citizens themselves, means that they are ill informed about the reasons, the goals and the achievements of European policies, laws and measures. Ignorance brings disregard for the obscure phenomenon. At best, citizens take for granted or fail to see that the EC/EU is behind the many rights that they have acquired thanks to European integration, some of which we examined in the previous chapter [see section 9.2], particularly the right to a peaceful, liberal and law secured existence. For uninformed Europeans, the peaceful coexistence and emulation of different European nations is self-evident and not to be attributed to unfamiliar Treaties, policies or common legislation. Uninterested citizens tend to forget the tariffs and other barriers hindering trade and therefore limiting their choice of goods and services from other European countries, in the pre-integration years [see section 5.1.1]. They do not recall the erstwhile controls at borders, the restrictions on movement, establishment and work in neighbouring countries, the limited amounts at their disposal when travelling abroad, the general restrictions on capital movements, the snags of dealing in several currencies, etc. Young Europeans tend even to disregard the bloody wars fought by their forefathers with nations that they themselves now consider friendly and allied to their own nation.

Many explanations have been advanced for the negative vote of the French and Dutch citizens at the referendums of 29 May and 1 June 2005 on the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty: national rather than European concerns, social protection versus free competition, fear of actual and future enlargements of the Union, etc. They all have their grain of truth; but to our mind, the main cause of the negative stance of two nations that were among the original builders of the European edifice is the information deficit of citizens on the objectives and the achievements of European integration to date [see section 1.5.1].

Instead of a democratic deficit, which as we explained in the previous chapter is largely overstated [see section 9.5.], we should rather speak about an information deficit in European affairs. The information deficit originates from the early days of the customs union and the common market, when the issues of European unification were too technical to really interest the public and the threat of the communist block was considered a sufficient justification of this unification. Now that the communist threat has disappeared and the evolutionary integration process generates, every day, new common policies and laws affecting all sectors of the economy and society of the Member States, the citizens are bewildered about their impact on their lives. Furthermore, in order to judge the common enterprise on its real advantages and disadvantages, they need to have matter-of-fact information on the benefits and drawbacks already drawn and those expected from it, as well as on the real management difficulties that it is facing. Responsible for the information deficit are the European institutions, which shy away from the development of a common information and communication policy, the governments of the Member States, which prefer to present the accomplishments of the Union as their own, and the media, which find more interesting to criticise the problems of the Union than present its achievements. Let us examine one by one these various factors of the information deficit of the Union.

The information deficit is partly due to the European institutions, notably the Commission, the Council and the Parliament, which do not join their forces to build a common communication policy. In their defence, it may be said that they are not encouraged - if they are not discouraged - by the governments of the Member States and the political parties that support them, which do not feel that they have a common interest in setting up a common information policy. In order to assume the political credit of modernisation, governments, when proposing innovating laws to national parliaments, transposing in effect European directives, or when changing their administrative practices to comply with European law, rarely take the trouble to explain to the general public that they are thus fulfilling their European obligations.

In contrast to the big parties, small political parties, usually of the extreme left or right, which have no chance in ever forming or participating in the government of a country and, hence, in the governance of the European Union, can freely disclaim European laws and policies, often propagating all sorts of lies about their nefarious effects on the interests and wellbeing of the citizens of their country or of the EU as a whole. To these parties at the fringes of the political spectrum are added europhobic and xenophobic parties, which by fighting the European Union are supposedly defending national sovereignty.

Paradoxically, however, the providers of information themselves, the mass communication media, have their share of responsibility in the information deficit of the Union. In fact, the mass media can play an important role in the multinational integration process by shaping public opinion and by exerting pressure on the political decision makers for or against common policies. They may also ignore or report incorrectly important issues of the integration process and, thus, leave the public ignorant or lead it astray as to the advantages and disadvantages of particular common policies or the integration process in general. If the majority of the media adopt attitudes different from the majority of the political elite of a nation, concerning the issue of integration or particular aspects of it, this may lead to a different stance of the majority of the public from that of the majority of the political elite of the nation. We may thus have the following antidemocratic phenomenon: the popular media transforming the political consensus existing among the democratically elected leaders of a nation, concerning the major political issues discussed at European level [see section 9.5], into a public opinion dissent on those issues, orchestrated by non-elected opinion leaders (media tycoons, trendy journalists, popular television speakers, etc.) and/or a vociferous minority (party, movement or union). The best example is the bitter opposition of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch to the will of the Labour government of the UK to adopt the euro.

In contrast to eurosceptic media, which systematically provide disinformation rather than information, unbiased mass media rarely report the decisions of the EC/EU; probably because they are too technical, too detailed and often quite difficult to understand for the general public and sometimes for the journalists themselves. Instead of bringing forward the need and/or the common interest of measures in discussion, the media (particularly the popular ones) tend to highlight the usual and comprehensible disagreements in the deliberations of the Council, stemming from different socioeconomic structures, cultural traditions and vested interests. Moreover, the media of a country tend to present as right the national points of view and as wrong those of the other Member States. When a compromise solution is found within the framework of the co-decision procedure of the Council and the Parliament [see section 4.3] (as happens with 95% of the technocratic proposals of the Commission, after thorough deliberation and many amendments introduced by the political bodies), and a European measure (regulation, directive or decision) is adopted, the same media tend either to ignore it or to summarise its content in small print and in a language difficult to understand for the average citizen. Furthermore, as a compromise solution is halfway between the best possible solution and no solution at all, even an unprejudiced journalist can easily disregard or belittle the achievement that it represents and emphasize its shortcomings. The resulting information in such a case is half-right or half-wrong, according to one's standpoint. But, again, it should be said, in the journalists' discharge, that they need clear, simple and interesting press releases on which to work; and these can only be provided by the European institutions. We thus have a vicious circle: the governments do not mandate the European institutions to set up a common information and communication policy; hence the institutions do not provide interesting factual information to the media; and these, on their turn, do not report to the public the activities of the institutions worthy of note.

In spite of the more than 1000 journalists from more than 70 countries accredited to the Commission, the European public is still ignorant or ill informed about European integration. Few and far between are the European topics, which make the headlines in the printed press and radio and television transmissions. Worse still, it is the crises, the temporary set-backs, which make the headlines, because they are more sensational than the unexciting decisions, secured on an almost daily basis after patient negotiations, which become European laws and affect the day-to-day lives of citizens, on occasion much more than the laws adopted by the national parliaments.

On the other hand, the lack of interest of the media in most member countries for European affairs is a sure sign of the lack of major dissensions in those countries for the progress of the European integration process. Characteristically, it is only the media in the countries with strong eurosceptic sentiments that deal at length and usually negatively with proposals for new steps in the process, whereas the media in most other countries tend to ignore them or relate them succinctly, albeit factually.

Governments and the political parties that support them, often use European measures as instruments of internal politics. If the European measure is popular, governments will tend to present as their own initiative the national law or decree implementing the European decision, hardly mentioning the common framework of the action. On the contrary, if the measure is unpopular, "Brussels" is often made responsible by the governments of the Member States for an action that they have themselves adopted (in the Council) or even encouraged (in the European Council). Of course, not all governments behave the same way and at all times. Some are more open than others about their involvement in European affairs. The latter are probably the ones, whose citizens need more clear and objective information concerning common policies and the implication of their own institutions in them.

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Your roadmap in the maze of the European Union.

Based on the book of Nicholas Moussis:
Access to European Union law, economics, policies

Translated into 14 languages

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