Communication policy

The need for effective communication has a legal basis in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which guarantees the right of all citizens to be informed about European issues. The EU institutions have developed several tools and services to stay in contact with and inform the public. Since its formal launch in 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative has allowed citizens to become more directly involved in new legislation and European issues.

Legal basis

The EU Treaties do not contain any specific provision concerning communication policy. However, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, rendered binding by the Treaty of Lisbon, has the same legal status as the Treaties. The Charter provides all EU institutions with a common framework for linking EU achievements to the underlying values of the Union when communicating to the public. 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 EU 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 level needs to refer to Article 352 TFEU.

Objectives

The EU has a responsibility to communicate its decisions and activities to EU citizens and other interested parties. The EU institutions have specialist staff and specific budgets dedicated to making sure that information about the Union is easily available in a language that citizens understand.

With access to clear information, EU citizens are better able to exercise their right to participate in the democratic life of the Union, in which decisions are meant to be taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizens, observing the principles of pluralism, participation, openness and transparency. The policy documents on communication released by the Commission 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.

Main initiatives and developments

From 2001 onwards, greater effort was devoted to creating a coherent EU communication strategy, the Commission releasing a number of important policy documents on communication. This fed into the 2002 plans for ‘Your Voice in Europe’ in the context of the Commission’s Interactive Policy-Making initiative. In February 2006, the Commission adopted its White Paper on a European Communication Policy, which identified five action areas, partnership with other institutions, governments and civil society, and emphasised the importance of promoting the right to freedom of information in the EU, suggesting the development of a European Charter or Code of Conduct on Communication.

The Commission and the Parliament communicate with the media, stakeholders and citizens about issues of European interest, including EU policies and actions, by providing different information services through their own respective Directorates-General for Communication (DG COMM). The communication tools used include websites, social media accounts, facilities for visitors, liaison and local offices in all EU countries, as well as special services for the media. The main tools and actions in the field of EU communication policy are:

  • Direct contact centres, such as the Europe Direct Information Centre (EDIC), the European Documentation Centre (EDC) or Ask EP. Citizens can write to these or call to get the answers they need;
  • Communicating about Europe via the EU’s official website EUROPA, the EU’s TV information service Europe by Satellite (EbS), the Parliament’s Multimedia Centre covering the latest news stories from the European Parliament and webstreaming parliamentary plenary debates and Committee meetings;
  • Communicating through the different EU institutions internet websites, their respective press services and different social media networks;
  • The European Citizens Initiative (ECI) (see below);
  • The Europe for Citizens and the Rights and Values programme (see below);
  • The Commission Communication on Communicating Europe in Partnership (see below);
  • The ‘What Europe does for me’ and the EUandME websites, as well as the ‘Europe in the palm of your hand’ mobile app (see below);
  • The ‘This time I’m voting’ information campaign launched by Parliament to inform citizens about the European elections in May 2019 and to encourage them to vote;
  • Boosting coverage on EU affairs cooperating with audiovisual and online platforms; e.g. the European Radio Network Euranet, Euronews.

1. The Europe for Citizens and the new Rights and Values programme

Following calls made at both the Tampere (1999) and Nice (2000) European Councils for a more open dialogue with civil society, a first Community action programme to promote active European citizenship was adopted by the European Council in January 2004. In the wake of the failure of the Constitution for Europe project, active European citizenship was succeeded by the Europe for Citizens programme, established by the European Parliament and the Council in 2006 for the 2007-2013 period with overall financing of EUR 215 million. In December 2011, following the programme’s mid-term evaluation in 2010, the Commission suggested continuing the Programme within the next multiannual financial framework 2014-2020, albeit in a slightly revised form. The main objective of the new programme would be to ‘strengthen remembrance and enhance capacity for civic participation at Union level’. The new Europe for Citizens programme was formally adopted by the Council on 14 April 2014 with a budget amounting to EUR 185.5 million, and thus a reduction in comparison to its predecessor programme and the original Commission proposal. Europe for Citizens 2014-2020 offered funding in two main thematic areas: (1) European Remembrance and (2) Democratic Engagement and Civic Participation. The programme also established a Civil Dialogue group, which meets on a regular basis to discuss matters related to the programme, its implementation and the dissemination of its results, and to monitor policy developments in related fields. The evaluation of the 2014-2020 programme highlighted its overall positive role in encouraging civic participation and democratic engagement across the EU.

On 30 May 2018, the Commission published its proposal for a regulation establishing the Rights and Values programme (2021-2027), to be funded under a new Justice, Rights and Values Fund, with a total allocation of EUR 641.7 million. The ‘Citizens’ engagement and participation’ strand of the new programme, with a proposed budget of EUR 233 million, aims to replace the current Europe for Citizens programme, focusing on (1)  increasing citizens’ understanding of the Union, its history, cultural heritage and diversity, and (2) promoting exchange and cooperation between citizens of different countries. On 17 December 2020 Parliament gave its consent to the next multiannual financial framework, and reached a provisional agreement with the Council on the Rights and Values programme (2021-2027). It will have a budget of EUR 641.7 million, with an additional allocation of a maximum EUR 912 million.

2. The What Europe does for me website and the Europe in the palm of your hand app

‘What Europe Does For Me’ is an interactive, multilingual online website developed by the European Parliament, where detailed information on the EU’s impact on individual citizens̕ lives and local communities can be found. Users can easily find specific information about what the EU is doing for their region, their profession or about any other topic of interest, such as hobbies. 1 400 localities are covered and 1 800 one-page notes are available for reading, sharing or reuse as online pages or PDF files. The website is organised into three main sections: (1) ‘In my region’, where users can find information about their region by selecting the place where they live or work; (2) ‘In my life’, where users can find out about how the EU affects issues such as families, healthcare, travel, and social rights; (3) ‘In focus’, where users have access to briefing papers on EU policies, with a special focus on public opinion and citizens’ concerns and expectations about EU action. In addition, through the free ‘Europe in the palm of your hand’ citizens’ app, information on the EU is available in twenty-four languages and can be easily searched, shared and personalised.

3. Communicating Europe in Partnership

In 2008 interinstitutional communication priorities were first agreed between Parliament, the Council and the Commission under the joint declaration on Communicating Europe in Partnership signed in December 2008. The overall aim of Union communication policies as stated in the declaration should be ‘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 EU, national and local level’.

4. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)

The introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) under the Lisbon Treaty provides, as from 1 April 2012, a stronger voice for the EU’s 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 Union citizenship, increase the public debate around EU policies and reinforce the involvement of citizens and organised civil society in the shaping of these policies, thus helping to build a genuine European public space. In 2011 Parliament and the Council adopted the Commission’s proposal for a regulation defining the rules and procedure governing the ECI . The rules were updated following a 2017 Commission proposal which was adopted on 17 April 2019 by Parliament and the Council. The new rules came into force on 1 January 2020.

The organisers of a citizens’ initiative - a citizens’ committee composed of at least seven EU citizens residing in at least seven different Member States - have to register the initiative with the Commission before they can start collecting statements of support from citizens. The committee then has one year to reach the necessary number of signatures, which has to be certified by the competent authorities in the respective Member States. To date, six initiatives have obtained the requisite number of signatures and been submitted to the Commission (Right2Water, One of Us, Stop Vivisection, Ban Glyphosate, Minority SafePack, and End the Cage Age). Parliament organised several hearings with the representatives of the first five initiatives, and the Commission provided a reply to these initiatives setting out its legal and political conclusions.

Role of the European Parliament

The entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon has had a substantial impact on the work of the EU institutions, reinforced the role of the European Parliament, and put a stronger focus on delivering results to EU citizens through more streamlined and democratic decision-making. As the directly elected body representing EU citizens, Parliament has a clear responsibility to communicate what the EU does, and to articulate and act upon citizens’ concerns.

Even if the feeling of belonging to the Union among its citizens seem to have increased, which is encouraging after years of often outright hostility towards the EU arising from recent financial and political crises, this sense of belonging to the EU fluctuates, so appropriate communication strategies and policies at EU level are needed. Taking an active part in shaping such strategies and policies is not only one of Parliament’s obligations towards EU citizens, but is also in its own interest.

In its reports and resolutions, Parliament has repeatedly made proposals for improving the relationship between the EU and its citizens. For instance, in its resolution of 7 September 2010 on creating a European public sphere, it proposed concrete ways to foster citizen’s involvement in debates on European issues, and stressed how better communication by governments, political parties, universities, public service broadcasters and the EU institutions is vital for developing a ‘European public sphere’. Several MEPs have also actively engaged in debates with citizens and answered their questions on the Debating Europe platform.

Parliament has also taken a major interest in the ECI, and contributed successfully to making it a more accessible and citizen-friendly instrument of participatory democracy. For instance, among other changes, Parliament obtained a reduction in the minimum number of Member States from which support statements have to come, and shifted the verification of admissibility to the pre-registration stage. It also pressed for provisions allowing all EU residents, regardless of nationality, to be granted the right to sign an ECI. Parliament also repeatedly called for the simplification and streamlining of the procedures for ECIs and enhancing their impact. Furthermore, in 2015, it adopted a resolution on the ECI review process, calling for simplified personal data requirements and for funding to support the organisation of ECIs. In September 2017, based on Parliament’s requests and a public consultation, the Commission submitted its proposal for a new regulation on the ECI, and an agreement between Parliament and the Council on the new regulation was signed on 17 April 2019. In mid-2020, Parliament and the Council adopted temporary measures to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ECI, the new measure allowing for an extension of the collection periods of citizens’ initiatives.

Parliament also provides information and documents on its website in all 24 official languages of the EU, through its Multimedia Centre platform and press office, as well as on different social media channels. Since the media are key opinion multipliers, Parliament supports different media channels by providing factual information, tools and facilities to help them cover its activities. The press office also monitors media coverage, and corrects false information about Parliament.

Furthermore, citizens can visit Parliament (in Strasbourg and in Brussels), the Parlamentarium (Parliament’s visitor centre) and the House of European History (both in Brussels). Parliament has at least one liaison office in each Member State, some of which also have visitor centres. The role of these liaison offices is to help citizens understand what the European Parliament is, what it does and what it stands for, as well as to act as information hubs tailored to local needs. They do this by engaging with citizens, stakeholders and the media.

In 2019 Parliament kept citizens informed about that year’s European elections and their importance for the future of the EU. The institutional communication campaign was non-partisan and ran in support of the political parties’ and candidates’ individual campaigns. As it was non-partisan, it focused on what the EU and Parliament had achieved and not on what they ought to achieve. A platform was also launched in 24 languages, and supported over 150 000 volunteers in all Member States, who signed up to get more citizens involved in the elections and encourage them to vote. The launch of the ‘What Europe Does For Me’ website and the ‘Europe in the palm of your hand’ citizens’ app are Parliament’s most recent initiatives to promote dialogue with EU citizens and to inform them about the EU.

 

Katarzyna Anna Iskra / Sophia Thoenes