The uneasy task of lifting the EU’s face

By Johanna Pohjola and Kati Rantala

The EU politics and legislation have an enormous impact on us. For example, it affects to more than two thirds of the Finnish laws directly or indirectly and supports our agriculture.

Despite of this fact the EU issues do not appear particularly appealing to the ordinary people. According to the Eurobarometer, only 40.3 per cent of the Finnish people voted in the European Parliamentary elections 2009. It is about 27 percentage points less than the turnout in the last national Parliamentary elections.

Especially the young don’t get excited – according to a study of Kimmo Elo, a political scientist and docent of the Turku University in Finland, only 13 percent of the Finnish youth considers voting in the European Parliamentary elections important. Finland is not an exception, Elo affirms.

The interest in the EU in the member countries is generally quite low. In Finland it is close to the average. People know that EU decisions are made in Brussels, but they don’t know how. When people feel the decision-making distant, they start to have doubts about it”, Elo tells in an interview.

The concern about the EU’s attractiveness is deeply shared by the European Commission. It is aware that people consider EU a distant, complicated institution. The Commission started to take this lack of trust seriously after 2005, when the EU constitution was rejected both in France and Holland.

What should be done in order to make the Union more appealing? What has been done?


EUTube found an access to the youth

 

Since the 1990’s but especially the 2000’s, the EU institutions have tried to improve their transparency and communication by a lot of means. According to the EU reports, dozens of conferences, debates, opinion polls and forums have been organized and information centers formed.

A new commissioner for communication was created in 2004. A commissioner nominated for the post, Margot Wallström, nowadays a United Nations representative, soon started “to modernize the institution’s communication practices”, an EU report lists.

One of Wallström’s projects was to improve the EU web site, as well the audiovisual strategy with social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In 2007, the Commission took a revolutionary step towards the young, starting to present news and clips in the video-sharing website YouTube. This stream of clips is called EUTube and seems to have found some audience: the EU clips had been uploaded more than 16 million times until the beginning of February.

An example of the Commission’s desire to have more open debates is the ongoing “EU in the day-to-day life tour” in Finland. It started las year and is planned to last five years.

The Commission has also tried to increase the transparency of the Union. A voluntary public register for the “interest representatives” got started in 2008, for example. The idea was to give light to the influence of lobbyists on the Union’s policy making, but the register has also been criticized of being voluntary.

Despite of all initiatives, according to the Eurobarometer, the average turnout for the European Parliament elections in 2009 was the lowest on record, 43.4 per cent. This was a deception for the Commission, the reports admit.

Last year Danish Parliamentarian Morten Løkkegaard urged EU to still communicate more escpecially in the social media. The Parliament accepted the initiative.

What is really the problem here? Is it in the citizens or in the EU itself? What kind of solutions would some Finnish specialists suggest?

 

Suggestions towards a more exciting EU

 

The problem lies in the Union and the mass media, thinks Finnish Parliamentarian Timo Soini. The media should tell more concrete EU stories, he suggests.

The EU is complicated, undemocratic and like an amoeba. This causes confusion. People reject what they don´t understand. The media is only transmitting worries about the Union’s future, when more attention should be paid to the survival of the people”, says Soini in an interview.

Political scientist Kimmo Elo would like to see more material explaining EU issues in a clear, easy language. The key lies in the school teaching, the researcher argues.

Material of better quality is needed and the EU could provide more of it. There are many teachers not being that familiar with the EU issues. Having access to a proper material, the differences between the schools wouldn’t be so extensive”, Elo says.

The opinion is in line with the conclusion drawn by the Commission’s public opinion surveys, where close to two thirds of Europeans found the information on the EU useful and even interesting, but insufficient.

Role of media is important, Elo emphasizes. Due to the financial and economic crisis EU is recently discussed a lot, but only from the crisis point of view. Some newspapers in the Central Europe have particular pages about the Europe, when in Finland the news concentrate in separate events.

The EU is discussed during the Parliamentary elections, but when they are over a silence falls. This increases the distance. More background information is needed to make people understand”, Elo says.

 

A thief like Mr. José Manuel Barrosso

 

In Elo’s opinion, European integration and the EU should also be distinguished as two different things, since EU was born as an institution to increase the integration and to provide peace and stability.

This connection rarely comes out, but it could help. The EU is only talked as an institution, elections and parliament, not as an idea. We should discuss more the reasons why EU is needed. It is not a mechanical institution to support the decision-making but a deeper thought”, Elo argues.

Of course the democracy is that people also find out things by themselves, he adds. People have the ultimate responsibility of their knowledge. There is a variety of material available.

The school teaching is a key here, Kimmo Elo thinks. It could awake the interest and make the threshold lower. Why aren’t the schools doing enough then?

The reason may be lack of time. There are so many things to learn, EU is only one of them. I still believe that many young people would interest if somebody would lead them to the sources of information”, Elo answers.

Finnish Parliamentarian Sirpa Pietikäinen doesn’t share the concern. In her opinion, EU affairs do interest people. When Pietikäinen was meeting people before the 2009 elections in the field, they showed an enormous interest in the everyday EU issues, she writes in her blog.

Pietikäinen suggests that the EU and the national Parliamentary elections should be combined. An EU question hour in the national parliament would increase the information flow between both parliaments. The news should concentrate more on the EU’s concrete impact on the daily life instead of council meetings or structure issues, she proposes.

However, it seems that the Commission’s hope still can’t be totally lost. Last autumn in Finland there appeared to be a thief who was described by an ordinary citizen as looking like the president of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso. This description shows that at least Mr. Barroso is recognized and has not been working in vain.

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One Response to “The uneasy task of lifting the EU’s face”

  1. peterverweij Says:

    Very nice story, interesting to read, Good sources and opinions giving agood overview of the problems, and a realistic conclusions, that it does not help very much. Would be important to have the perspective of a journalist about the EU and informing the public.

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