The EU is (for) you – the EESC, European civil society and experts discuss how to improve communication about the EU

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The EU is (for) you – the EESC, European civil society and experts discuss how to improve communication about the EU 

The 13th Civil Society Media Seminar, organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in partnership with the University of Malaga, took place in Malaga on 10-11 October. It addressed the topic "The EU is (for) you – the role of civil society in communicating the European Union". 

The seminar's participants spent one and a half days immersed in discussions at the university in the very heart of Malaga. 
The university's chancellor José Angel Narváez Bueno welcomed the almost 150 participants: press and communication officers from civil society organisations, students from the University of Malaga, journalists, representatives of ESCs from European countries, members of the three EESC Groups and many guests. Mr Narváez Bueno told the participants to consider this state university a place of training and innovation, adding that the university enhanced its students' understanding of the EU and its challenges. He called for young people to be at the heart of European integration, for them to play a central role in this process alongside civil society, and urged the EU institutions to reach out more to them.

Isabel Caño Aguilar, EESC vice-president in charge of communication, who is from Malaga herself, spoke about young people and the university, highlighting the EU's responsibility to motivate young people and give them the chance to shape public debate in the EU. "We organised this event at the University of Malaga not only to demonstrate the need to increase the visibility of the regions but also to highlight our desire to include young people in policy-making." The vice-president said that she was "convinced that it is our duty to encourage young people to get involved in political discussions. They need to create their own vision of the EU. These students may become the professionals who, in a few years' time, will be telling the story of the European project and tweeting about the EU."

For Ms Caño Aguilar, the main aim of the seminar was to strengthen ties between the various stakeholders, groups and organisations of civil society, communication experts, journalists and young people. "We're here together," she said, "because we have decided to listen to each other, to talk and to share our stories of the EU. The idea behind the European project was to reunite a divided continent, ensure political stability and peaceful coexistence, and create an economically prosperous union." She also stressed that "we won't be able to move forward without the support of workers, companies and civil society as a whole. Enhancing social dialogue and governance is essential." The main focus needed to be on the method and guidelines for improving communication about the EU, "while emphasising that the EU is neither Brussels nor an abstract concept but rather a common project," she added.  

Malaga's mayor, Francisco de la Torre Prados, told the guests that the city was one of the EU's biggest supporters. "The EU means hope. This is the message we need to convey," the mayor said. He believed that the story of the EU – a story of human rights, democracy and a solidarity-based civil society – needed to be retold. The mayor also invited the seminar's participants to take the time to experience the city's hospitality, as well as its cosmopolitan and pro-EU side.

Maria Andrés Marín, head of the European Parliament's Liaison Office in Spain, provided some answers to the question of how to improve communication about the EU. As well as other potential measures to regain public trust, she mentioned the possibility of establishing an effective narrative with them, undertaking specific initiatives enabling them to identify with the European project, and changing how we talk about the EU to counteract Eurosceptic discourse. She also said that we could combat fake news through education and training campaigns because people very often did not check or no longer checked sources and believed false information without stopping to think.

Verónica Fumanal, president of the Association of Political Communication (ACOP), who made the introductory speech, said she wanted to put the EU back in a global context and confirm the role of the institutions in public communication aimed at boosting their legitimacy in the eyes of the public. She emphasised how important the support and involvement of the public were to the EU so that it could become a project they could really take ownership of, contradicting the anti-EU narrative. Ms Fumanal believed that the time had come to not only involve the public in the EU but to "give the EU a meaning that transcends and connects with the socio-political realities of our time." She added that this was the key issue as regards communicating the EU's connection with the generations of the 21st century and of "needing to establish real communication that could steer current debates towards the issues of concern to the public." According to Ms Fumanal, "the only way to enhance trust in the institutions is to maintain seamless communication and engage in dialogue, which is what the public wants anyway." She believed that this was what the seminar's topic was all about.

Three panels held discussions on the following:

  • Europe equals hope
  • Together for Europe
  • Democracy brings us together: the role of journalism as the watchdog of democracy

The three panels were introduced in turn by the presidents of the three Groups. The topics and the exchanges of views between the speakers led to heated debates and creative discussions with the seminar's participants at all levels.

Jacek Krawczyk, president of the Employers' Group, described his experience of the fall of the Iron Curtain when he was 18. "For us," he said, "it was hope that enabled us to change everything. The public rose up against something that was supposed to be all-powerful. Our fight was based on hope and that was what gave us the courage to act." He explained that the EU had represented hope, but public sentiment had changed after the 2008 financial crisis. The public had stopped identifying with the EU. Mr Krawczyk believed that we now needed to give the public hope again: "The EU is all about people: it acts for them and with them! Let's give the EU back to those it belongs to: its citizens," he concluded.

The first panel debate, entitled "Europe equals hope", was moderated by journalist Maroun Labaki and featured the following participants: Maria Freitas, senior policy advisor for the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels, Nicolas Gros-Verheyde, Brussels correspondent of French newspaper Sud-Ouest and editor-in-chief of the blog B2-Bruxelles2, Cristina Marconi, freelance journalist and writer, and Kiran Klaus Patel, professor and chair of European History at Ludwig Maximilians University Munich.

During the discussions, the speakers stressed that division in the EU had increased populism and Euroscepticism, and that specific action therefore had to be taken at EU level to combat fake news. European projects that were examples of success stories needed to be made more visible. It was important to make the EU attractive to Europeans, i.e. to learn to promote the EU and its projects and spread the EU message in the regions and at local level.

To give Europeans hope, the panellists agreed that social peace had to be ensured and firm responses needed to be given to the complicated challenges facing the EU, such as digitalisation and migration, which had been a powerful factor in the rise of anti-EU populists and the extreme right. It was up to the EU to counter the arguments of these populists and extremists, which required an intellectual effort that contrasted with the populist approach, and the dissemination of correct facts. It was vital to join forces at local level to get the public involved. It was also mentioned that the EU was too often divided on matters of foreign policy and did not react appropriately to the crises enveloping it. More unity was required.

Oliver Röpke, president of the Workers' Group, who opened the debate entitled "Together for Europe", emphasised the importance of trust. For him, the EU was part of the solution. "It's an opportunity, not a threat," he said. He considered social inequality to be the biggest problem that the EU had to solve. To that end, social policy needed to be strengthened at EU level, with all citizens benefiting from EU rights. Mr Röpke called for action to make the Social Pillar accessible to the public. "We proclaimed the Social Pillar; now we need to implement it," he concluded. "We need to work together, as the title indicates, because the EU is a joint effort."

Euractiv journalist Jorge Valero moderated this "Together for Europe" panel debate, which included Álvaro Gallego Peris, member of the cabinet of the Spanish High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda, Marie-Isabelle Heiss, lawyer and EP candidate for the pro-EU movement VOLT Europa, Silviu Mihai, freelance journalist, researcher and producer, and Helena Seibicke, senior researcher for ARENA - Centre for European Studies, Oslo.

The panellists called for better explanations of problems that could initially seem incomprehensible to people and could cause fear. Populism had led to Brexit and some other political developments, mainly in Eastern Europe but also in some parts of Western Europe. The EU needed to better explain why some changes were needed. The speakers said that, otherwise, populists and the extreme right would continue to gain ground.

They believed that civil society as a whole, i.e. trade unions, employers' organisations, consumer organisations, farmers and the disability community, could play a key role in preparing for change because, unfortunately, politicians were often reluctant to talk about problems.

The panellists considered inequality to be a huge challenge for the EU. They thought that the EU needed to be a global leader in climate change, partly because it would also increase migration. Migration had to be discussed in a different way. It was important to take a positive approach but also to talk about problems and areas for improvement.

It was also suggested that, to reinforce the idea of a citizens' Europe, pan-European parties could be created, bringing together the different parts of society. A citizens' Europe needed to be created, as well as a European space where people could exchange views and get to know each other. The EU had to listen to the public and be receptive to the outcome of dialogue held with them. "We must not be afraid of different European identities. A country's history shapes the identity of its people but does not restrict them," the panellists said. The impact of action taken by the younger generations was also highlighted, particularly the Fridays for Future movement. A survey had shown that the majority of demonstrators at the marches had been aged between 14 and 19, most of them young girls. 

Jane Morrice introduced the topic "Democracy brings us together" on behalf of Group III - Diversity Europe. She began by saying, "Democracy can bring us together, but without adequate training, communication and information, it can also separate us and tear us apart. She continued by establishing a parallel between the two referendums that had marked Northern Ireland's recent history: the one on the Good Friday Agreement, which was the subject of a major communication campaign carried out by the media and the authorities, and, in stark contrast, the Brexit referendum, which had left people totally confused because of the lies and misinformation. Ms Morrice found "Brussels" too remote. "Communication must be at the heart of all we do." She earned a round of applause by adding: "Let's apply the K.I.S.S. strategy: Keep It Simple, Stupid! For democracy to succeed, it must take care of people, and treat them with empathy and a sense of humour!"

The panel debate on "Democracy brings us together" was moderated by José Manuel Sanz Mingote, journalist for Agencia EFE, and featured: Pauline Adès-Mével (Reporters Without Borders), Maciej Zakrocki, Polish radio and television journalist, Tina Bettels-Schwabbauer (European Journalism Observatory), Mar Cabra (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) and Elina Makri (Oikomedia.com).

 

Inmaculada Postigo Gómez, head of the Faculty of Communication Sciences at the University of Malaga, raised issues regarding the importance of journalism, and journalists' role in today's society, which were echoed by the panellists. They believed that it was journalists' responsibility to refute hostile talk rooted in hatred. Free, professional journalism was required that would make society more open-minded and clear-sighted.

Most of the panellists' contributions focused on the situation of press freedom, the role of investigative journalism and the need for media pluralism in the EU. The speakers – mostly journalists – sounded the alarm about the erosion of press freedom in many EU countries, while also pointing out that, for the first time, journalists had been killed in the EU because of their investigative work (Malta, Slovakia, Bulgaria). Through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where various media outlets pooled their resources and investments to work on joint investigations (e.g. Panama Papers, Paradise Papers), journalism had fully played its role as whistle-blower, transcending the borders between EU countries and the borders of the EU itself.

This type of journalism had even played an active role in democracy as certain revelations had led to the resignation of some prime ministers and politicians. The speakers also called for an EU public media service financed by public funds but free from any government pressure. Referring to the situation in Poland and Hungary, they said that, when political leaders started to attack journalists, this had a direct impact on society. They stressed how vital journalists were for democracy in the EU. New pan-European journalist networks would have the potential to unite Europeans in a unique "conversation" on issues affecting everyone. By emphasising that the press reflected the state of democracy in the EU and that transparency was key to democratic practice, the speakers highlighted the role of the media and journalists as watchdogs of democracy in the EU.

A report presenting the seminar's main findings and conclusions will be made available to those interested by the end of the year.