European Movement (Sussex branch)
Summer seminar 2006

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Europe and the Citizen
is the European Union democratic enough?
a day seminar held on Friday 7 July 2006 at Brinsbury College, Pulborough

In the aftermath of the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes, the seminar aimed to focus on the apparent failure of EU leaders to enlist the support of their citizens. What role do our parliamentary institutions, in Europe and at Westminster, play in this? or is it the media that have been the villains in the piece?

Click on any of the three topics to find a short resumé of that session.

Europe, the media and the citizen
Dr Martyn Bond
Head of the European Parliament Office in London, 1989-2000
Director, Federal Trust, 2000-2003;  now Deputy Chair, London Press Club
More democracy, or more legitimacy?
Brendan Donnelly
Director of the Federal Trust
Is the EU really democratic enough ?
– views from Westminster and the European Parliament

Sharon Bowles, MEP
Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for SE England
Nick Herbert, MP
Conservative Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs

Europe, the Media and the Citizen

Dr Martyn Bond

Head of the European Parliament Office in London 1989-2000;
Director of the Federal Trust 2000-2003; now Deputy Chair, London Press Club.

Martyn Bond started by suggesting that Europe is a mix of ‘tribes’. Some ancient languages or dialects have been dying out, but still there were a number of strongly held minority languages (such as Latvian). The effect of this was that more abstract pan-European concepts were not easy to translate into a common experience. Local media were therefore at a significant disadvantage in explaining ideas. English language now has a predominant effect on informing the European demos. The once universal language of diplomacy, French, had lost its pre-eminence, even though it did remain a core language. There are a large number of other officially recognised languages, but the focus had to remain on ‘practical’ languages.

There were some 1100 journalists accredited in Brussels. Any media pack produced by the European Commission was far larger than a corresponding pack produced in Washington, with the advantage of a single language. The clarity of EC briefings varied, and then each EU nation would probably brief from its own perspective. The messages could be carried by a variety of media outlets – an each would be used by different sorts of people. The majority audience expected entertainment, and for their income most media must also satisfy the interests of advertisers.

Mass communication theory suggested a sequence of filters: the raw source (an event, issue or decision)
à the reporter (perception or impression) à editor (a gate-keeper imposing implicit or explicit values) à the medium used (style of language, sometimes the priority of visuals, sound/vision ‘bites’) à the consumer (level of attention, lack of interactivity, attention span has become shorter and shorter, say 10-30 words) à impact (the receiver’s values, balance of information or emotion, function in changing opinions or values) à social outcome (eg. voting for/against issues, empowering further involvement or action).

In this context Martyn Bond then looked at a selection of newspapers from that day, reminding his audience that we already had certain preconceptions about whether a particular newspaper was positive towards Europe, neutral or sceptical. Some articles were informative, where the only indication of prejudice was the headline, or where the significance was devalued by being placed adjacent to a “pop’ image article. Martyn Bond looks for EU issues in the day's papers

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Referring to articles in the Metro and Daily Mail, he pointed out that journalists know well that actual reading declines rapidly after the headline. As expected, the Financial Times gave wider coverage and balanced views – one article that day emphasised a “sharp rise in British support for EU” – 25% six years ago, 42% this year according to a Eurobarometer survey. 

Not only had Europe been changing, but so too had media ownership and significance. The press was concerned about loss of media dominance over the years to TV, and more recently to internet. To most Britons Europe was now the ‘near abroad’, with greater familiarity perceiving the issues more as ‘domestic’ news. The internet in particular had provided a wider number of sources and more immediacy.

Questions from the audience brought out a number of points:

Only major media can afford to keep skilled reporters in Brussels.
Media with a mandate for impartiality (eg. the BBC) tend to regard European Parliament and Commission sources as ‘propaganda’. But minor language countries, with media in relative poverty, do rely on these sources.
What did young people use for European information? Research showed that 16-25 year-olds us ethe internet as a main source. Under-16s might find European issues occurring in citizenship or history courses, but the issues tended to be presented at a very low level.
Could foreign ownership dominate the media? Martyn Bond did not think that the press should be a protected species in an international free-market. With so many media outlets available, interference in editorial policy was not particularly productive. The Murdoch empire was more concerned with preventing EU implementing anti-trust regulations that could damage its investment.
Opening the Council of Ministers to media coverage would not actually reveal how detailed policy emerges in committees and corridors – “Power shuns publicity”.

More democracy, or more legitimacy?

Brendan Donnelly

Director of the Federal Trust

To start with, Brendan Donnelly emphasised, the European Union is a highly democratic organisation. All states joining the EU had a democratic mandate from their own citizens. The European Commission has a constitutional role – to make proposals, which can then be endorsed by the Council of Ministers. If the Constitutional Treaty had gone ahead greater democratic powers would have been given to the European Parliament. But it should be remembered that already more people have voted for the Treaty than have yet had the opportunity to vote for or against, let alone the two countries voting against.

The real issue was legitimacy. The ministers for each country make decisions, and often compromises. These can be misrepresented as “Brussels diktats”. It is then the duty of national ministers and parliaments to explain to their own people the decisions they have agreed to. It has been easy for national ministers to claim responsibility for successful decisions, and allude to “Brussels” when the decision is less popular.

National parliaments, after an election, have a new government or coalition. But after the European Parliament elections it is difficult to see what differences in policy might emerge. Political parties do not spread across Europe, so there is no focused political image.

Brendan Donelly comments on audience questions

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Questions raised a number of issues for discussion between participants and Brendan Donnelly:

The Constitutional Treaty was not really about a new Constitution, but more a consolidation of accepted conventions.
In France, the full Treaty and a summary were made available to all voters. The UK government has not yet any motive to carry through a similar information exercise, until a referendum takes place.
The detail of EU legislation is developed by civil servants in Brussels, but subsequently the legislation is interpreted and implemented by national civil servants.
There might be advantages in developing a recognisable party political system across Europe, with political platforms to assist intelligent voting. But currently that was not practical – the labels meant different things in different countries (eg. the political label “Liberal”). Nevertheless euro-parties might help a European “demos” to emerge.
Proportional representation, rather than ‘open list’ voting, was a requirement in the constitution of the European Parliament, but the practicalities could be interpreted nationally. This tended to favour parties recognised in national elections.
European integration is often seen as bringing peace to Europe. There were still powerful memories of World War 2, and the hope that developing common ground would eliminate the causes of 19th and 20th century wars.
Federalists were in favour of decentralisation, but this could also work against transparency, because monitoring also has to become decentralised.

Is the EU democratic enough?
views from Westminster and the European Parliament

Sharon Bowles
MEP for SE England. Liberal Democrat
Nick Herbert
MP for Arundel & South Downs. Conservative.

The session was moderated by
Gary Shipton
Editor, County Times newspapers, West Sussex

Nick Herbert had launched a strong campaign for a ‘no’ vote on joining the euro, and against the Constitutional Treaty, but he said he was not obsessed by European issues. He is currently shadow spokesman on police reform.

The European Commission, he said, is a powerful civil service, not democratically elected. Past problems with corruption had led to the resignation of the whole Commission. The Council of Ministers is the only legislature outside North Korea that meets ‘in secret’.

Voting for MEPs was by party list. Retirement or death of an MEP does not precipitate a by-election, just moves the post to the next on the party list.

Only about half of the European Commission documentation is available to the public. All controversial documents remain ‘hidden’. We should expect public disillusionment if decision-making does not become more transparent. Accountability was a key problem in the gap between the EU and its voters.

Sharon Bowles confessed that she was an MEP ‘next on the party list’, replacing Chris Huhne after his election to Westminster. She said that personally she disliked the party list system, but was not against proportional representation by other methods. Realistically most Westminster MPs were indirectly determined by a party list. As an MEP she felt she had not yet had time to ‘go native’. She had seen the European Parliament voting down a bill and it was an ‘eye-opening experience’.

She had observed professional lobbyists in the EP, and learned to respect their work – they would not be credible if ever found to mislead. The timescale for complex decision-making was a matter for concern. To make any progress there had to be co-ordination between the parliamentary parties.

An illustration was the process of ‘signing off’ on the EU budget. Really this depended on each country being prepared to vouch for its local EU spending. In other words, George Brown needed to set up a mechanism to monitor the UK part of the budget, and put the Chancellor’s name to it.

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Nick Herbert, Gary Shipton and Sharon Bowles
Nick Herbert, Gary Shipton, Sharon Bowles

Gary Shipton briskly steered the audience through a number of questions:

Proportional representation was a valuable tool for focusing voting on the mainstream parties – there was otherwise a risk of the balance of power being held by a maverick party like UKIP.
When it comes to referenda, most people vote on local rather than European issues.
On the question of openness in the Council of Ministers Sharon Bowles pointed to the risk of exposing conflict – media adrenalin versus insight. Nevertheless the voting should be open, and thus individual ministers would be accountable. Nick Herbert agreed that the UK Cabinet was not analogous to the Council of Ministers, but transparency will become an increasing theme.
A final question asked each speaker “if there was one piece of legislation you would like to put through on your own”. Sharon Bowles chose her specialist area – pensions and insurance companies. There was need to have a pan-European standard, especially in the context of retirement mobility. Nick Herbert emphasised employment legislation, and his desire to bring powers back from Europe.

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