Brussels burns billions of Euros on publicity – but citizens still can’t stand the EU

By David Haworth, in Brussels

The European Commission and the European Parliament are beginning to feel the rough edge of voter sentiment about them.

Neither institution is well regarded – and becoming less so all the time.

Of course European Union (EU) officials say nothing about the tsunami of complaint, criticism and contempt that the speed of emails exposes them to.

But the email blowback from voters is uncomfortably there.

One such bureaucrat “victim” commented on how informed and specific the abuse was. Personal even.

Print journalists use to say this kind of contact was from the “green ink brigade” because that was the colour of choice many critics used.

Although the delete button stands in for a waste paper basket these days, a public body finds it more difficult not to reply to unwanted correspondence.

The idea of direct contact with the institutions was boosted by a poll four years ago which asked voters whether they thought the European Parliament should conduct all its business in Brussels rather than splitting it extravagantly between the Belgian capital and Strasbourg, hundreds of miles away on France’s German border at an annual cost of Euros 204 million.

Under the EU’s citizen petition system the authorities are supposed to take notice if more than a million votes are cast. In this case the target was handsomely achieved.

Needless to say, both the parliament and EU member states ignored it. They didn’t even make the effort to acknowledge the campaign result.

This is one example, perhaps even a small one, of the increasing dislocation between the rulers and the ruled in the European Union.

It’s interesting for two background reasons:

First, the voter turnout in the recent European Parliament elections at 34% a record low, highlighting the fact that fewer citizens participated every time an election was held in the past 30 years. So the wished-for endorsement of the EU establishment, even during a period of acute economic crisis, didn’t matererialise.

In the second place, it’s overlooked that the European Commission spends many many millions of Euros  per annum in propaganda to convince the public that “ever closer union” is not only vital but also, perhaps, inevitable.

There’s seemingly no limit to the funds dispensed to television, radio, publications of all kinds, campaigns, think tanks and other pressure groups to make everyone, from school kids to pensioners, cheerleaders for the European Union.   

According to the Open Europe think tank’s research the EU spends an astonishing annual Euro2.4 billion promoting itself through many and devious ways.

Some Euro 213 million is to be spent by the Commission’s directorate general for communications this year but that only tells a part of the story because all the other Commission departments have their own publicity budgets which are not included in this sum.

The Commission has allocated from 2007 to 2013 the sum of Euro 885 million on trans-continental efforts to promote a “common European identity” among the under-25s in a campaign which deliberately confuses the difference between information and propaganda.

In response Commission vice president Margot Wallstrom says: “The goal is not to get everyone to love the EU” but rather to create better policies if the EU first consults the public.

The Centre for European Policy Studies, a think tank which claims to be independent, was on the take through the Commission of some Euro 6.1 million two years ago of taxpayers’ cash. Indeed, the Brussels undergrowth is thick with such bodies – all “thinking”, but who never seem to produce any monographs of intellectual distinction by comparison with their Washington counterparts. The difference is that such USA bodies are privately funded – not subsidised by the authorities they are supposed to be examining.

The Euronews TV service? Good stuff, but it will cost voters Euro 10.8 million his year to learn from it how excellently the EU is looking after their interests.

Of course, the speed and ubiquity of electronic communication will make only the slowest changes to the way the EU conducts itself – if at all.

But the paradox remains: the more multi-millions the European Union spends telling voters how splendid it is, the faster the two finger salute from those paying for it.