Communication policy

Communication policy is not governed by specific provisions in the Treaties, but stems naturally from the EU’s obligation to explain its functioning and policies, as well as ‘European integration’ more generally, to the public. The need for effective communication has a legal basis in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which guarantees the right of all citizens to be informed about European issues. Since its formal launch in 2012, the new European Citizens’ Initiative has allowed citizens to become more directly involved in new legislation and European issues.

Legal basis

The Treaties do not contain any specific chapter or article concerning communication policy. However, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, rendered binding by the Treaty of Lisbon, gave the Charter the same legal status as the EU Treaties. It provides all European institutions with a common framework for linking EU achievements to the underlying values of the EU when communicating to the public at large[1]. Relevant articles in the Charter include Article 11 (right to information and freedom of expression, as well as freedom and diversity of the media), Article 41 (right to be heard and right of access to documents relating to oneself), Article 42 (right of access to the documents of the European institutions) and Article 44 (right of petition). As there is no separate legal basis in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) for communication policy, any action at EU levels needs to refer to Article 352 TFEU[2].

Objectives

Communicating with citizens has long been a primary concern of the European institutions, with the aim of fostering trust in the European project. With the ‘no’ votes in the referenda on the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands (May 2005), followed by the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland (June 2008), the EU took a series of measures to improve communication between the institutions and the citizens of the Union.

These measures were intended to inform members of the public on EU policies and on how these have an impact on their everyday lives. On the background of this information, European citizens are better able to exercise their right to participate in the democratic life of the Union, in which decisions are supposed to be taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizens, observing the principles of pluralism, participation, openness and transparency. Since 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), an innovation in the Lisbon Treaty, has allowed citizens to directly suggest new EU legislation.

Since 2005, the Commission has released a number of policy documents on communication. These reflect the high profile of this policy, which is based on three principles:

  • listening to the public, and taking their views and concerns into account;
  • explaining how European Union policies affect citizens’ everyday lives;
  • connecting with people locally by addressing them in their national or local settings, through their favourite media.

With the start of the Juncker Commission on 1 November 2014, the Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication has become a presidential service working towards the following overarching objective: ‘Citizens perceive that the EU is working to improve their lives and engage with the EU. They feel their concerns are taken into consideration in European decision making process and they know about their rights in the EU’.

Achievements

a.Main Initiatives (a selection):

  • the Europe for Citizens Programme (see also below);
  • Communicating Europe in Partnership (see also below);
  • Communicating about Europe via the Internet — Engaging the Citizens;
  • Debating Europe, an online forum where people can voice their concerns to decision-makers;
  • making the Europa website the one-stop site for all EU institutions and information;
  • Communicating Europe through Audiovisual Media, e.g. the European Radio Network (http://www.euranet.eu), and boosting coverage of EU affairs on new and existing audiovisual platforms;
  • closing the communication gap between the EU and its citizens through efficient cooperation and partnerships.

b.The Europe for Citizens Programme

Following calls made at both the Tampere (1999) and Nice (2000) European Council meetings for a more open dialogue with civil society, a first Community action programme to promote Active European Citizenship was initiated by the European Council in January 2004 (Council Decision 2004/100/EC). In the wake of the failure of the Constitution for Europe project, Active European Citizenship was succeeded by the programme Europe for Citizens, established by Decision 1904/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council for the period 2007 to 2013 with an overall financial envelope of EUR 215 million[3]. Based on the recommendation made following the Programme’s mid-term evaluation in 2010, the Commission formally suggested, in December 2011, continuing the Europe for Citizens Programme — albeit in a slightly revised form — within the next Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020[4]. The principal objectives are stated as ‘strengthening remembrance and enhancing capacity for civic participation at the Union level’[5], and the new programme was formally adopted by the Council of the European Union on 14 April 2014 (Council Regulation (EU) No 390/2014)[6]. Its budget amounts to EUR 185.5 million, thus representing a reduction in comparison with both its predecessor programme and the original Commission proposal. Europe for Citizens 2014-2020 offers funding in two thematic areas: (1) European Remembrance, focusing on the historical coming into being of the European project; and (2) Democratic Engagement and Civic Participation, aimed at strengthening citizens’ understanding of EU policies and, in particular, securing the active involvement of civil society in European policymaking.

c.Communicating Europe in Partnership

The year 2009 was the first in which interinstitutional communication priorities were agreed between Parliament, the Council and the Commission under the joint declaration on Communicating Europe in Partnership[7], signed in December 2008. The four priorities selected were the European elections, energy and climate change, the 20th anniversary of democratic change in Central and Eastern Europe, and sustaining growth, jobs and solidarity, with a particular link to the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. The aim stated in the document is ‘to strengthen coherence and synergies between the activities undertaken by the different EU institutions and by Member States, in order to offer citizens better access and a better understanding of the impact of EU policies at European, national and local level’[8].

d.The European Citizens’ Initiative

The introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) under the Lisbon Treaty provides — as from 1 April 2012 — a stronger voice to European Union citizens by giving them the right to call directly on the Commission to bring forward new policy initiatives. It is meant to add a new dimension to European democracy, complement the set of rights relating to the citizenship of the Union and increase the public debate around European policies, helping to build a genuine European public space. It is hoped that its implementation will essentially reinforce citizens’ and organised civil society’s involvement in the shaping of EU policies. As required by the Treaty, on a proposal from the Commission, in 2011 Parliament and the Council adopted a regulation defining the rules and procedure governing this new instrument[9]. The ECI allows one million citizens from at least one quarter of the EU Member States to invite the Commission to bring forward proposals for legal acts in areas in which the Commission has the power to do so. The organisers of a citizens’ initiative — a citizens’ committee composed of at least seven EU citizens resident in at least seven different Member States — have one year to collect the necessary statements of support, the number of which has to be certified by the competent authorities in the respective Member States[10].

Role of the European Parliament

The entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon had an almost immediate impact on the work of the EU institutions, with a stronger focus on delivering results to EU citizens through more streamlined and democratic decision-making. In particular, the Reform Treaty has reinforced the role of Parliament in shaping Europe. As the directly elected representative of the body of European citizens, Parliament has a clear responsibility to communicate what Europe is about and to articulate and act upon citizens’ interests in Europe.

In its reports, Parliament has therefore repeatedly made detailed proposals for improving the relationship between the EU and its citizens. For instance, in a resolution adopted in September 2010, it proposed concrete ways in which EU citizens can be more involved in debates on European issues[11]. The report looked at how communication can initiate, encourage and further develop the European debate. It stressed that better communication by governments, political parties, universities, public service broadcasters and the EU institutions themselves is vital for constructing a ‘European public sphere’ of debate. The resolution also addressed the ongoing revolution in so-called ‘social media’ with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and an array of blogs.

Parliament provides a wealth of information and documents on its website to the citizens, in all 24 official languages of the EU. Moreover, Parliament has a strong presence in social media. Visitors to Parliament can visit the hemicycle (in Strasbourg and in Brussels), the Parlamentarium (Parliament’s visitor centre) and — in the near future — the House of European History (both in Brussels). In each Member State, Parliament has at least one information office. The role of these information offices is to raise awareness of the Parliament and its Members by providing information, answering questions and building links with citizens, stakeholders and the media.

Despite Parliament’s increasing power, the turnout in European elections has been falling steadily since the first direct vote in 1979. In order to reverse this tendency, Parliament is increasingly using the internet to reach out to citizens online. This goes in particular for election years, which prove especially appealing for the use of social media and content-sharing web platforms. In the project ‘Share Europe online’, which is currently receiving support from the EU budget as a preparatory action, the Commission and Parliament have found a way to share best practices and rapidly build expertise in digital communications while working through different languages and across cultures.

Current trends of increased indifference or even hostility towards the EU among European citizens — along with the current financial crisis and the apparent lack of solutions, as well as strong political responses from EU leaders — call in particular for appropriate communication strategies and policies at European level. Taking an active part in shaping such strategies and policies is not only one of Parliament’s obligations towards the European citizens it actually represents, but is also in its own interests.

[1]See OJ C 83, 30.3.2010, p. 389.
http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:C:2010:083:0389:0403:en:PDF

[2]See Consolidated Version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (OJ C 115, 9.5.2008, p. 199;
http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:C:2008:115:FULL&from=EN

[3]See OJ L 378, 27.12.2006, p. 32.
(http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2006:378:0032:0040:EN:PDF).

[4]See COM(2011) 0884 (http://ec.europa.eu/citizenship/pdf/doc1383_en.pdf).

[5]Ibid., p. 3.

[6]See OJ L 115, 17.4.2014, p. 3 (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/DE/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:L:2014:115:FULL&from=EN).

[7]See (COM(2007) 0569).
(http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/site/en/com/2007/com2007_0568en01.pdf).

[8]Ibid., p. 4.

[9]See OJ L 65, 11.3.2011 (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:065:0001:0022:EN:PDF).

[10]For more information on the European Citizens’ Initiative and an overview of open and closed initiatives, see http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/welcome

[11]OJ C 308 E, 20.10.2011, p. 55. (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML+TA+P7-TA-2010-0307+0+DOC+PDF+V0//EN).

Michaela Franke

03/2017