Information and the Citizen

Article published on April 22, 2003
community published
Article published on April 22, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The debate over the quality of information circulated by the EU has been ongoing for several years. Much criticism has been thrown at the institutions, public opinion largely feels 'badly informed' in the surveys, and certain media do not hesitate to make jibes at this distant, dense and unintelligible construction.

The information deficit, a hackneyed subject

This debate is crucial, for, as Alfred Sauvy writes, A man that is badly informed is but a subject ; a well-informed man is a citizen. And this is the very issue: the information and communication deficit problem is closely linked to that other, fashionable question, that of the democratic deficit.

Since 1974, when the first measures were taken to place the citizen at the centre of European construction, by reinforcing information and communication, things have advanced considerably. Access to the information and documents of the institutions has been put in place by the Court of Justice, guaranteeing respect, and the notions of transparency and good administrative conduct have appeared. The ombudsman has become more and more well-known and used by the citizen, the networks of the information bureaux and Euro-Info Centres are expanding and the Internet site offers a mass of information...

However, despite these efforts, it would seem that the European public is both badly and hardly informed. Sure, the Union is not the only culprit. Because of this, the written and audiovisual press does not often deal with community or even European matters. The current tendency is even to reduce the international essays, and to reduce the number of permanent correspondents. Only the crises, the quarrels and failures, even if ephemeral, are regularly analysed, probably because they are spicy, scandalous and easy to comprehend. The governments, displaying an occasionally incredible schizophrenia, also take some of the responsibility. As a fascinating part of the community decision-making, they are often inclined, when something goes wrong, to pass the buck to 'Europe' or even 'Brussels'. Conversely, when they propose pioneering laws to the national parliaments, or when they update their administrative practices, they do not bother to explain to the pubic that they often simply transpose the directives or community regulations.


According to the Eurobarometre surveys, 70% of European citizens consider that information should be a priority for the community institutions, and 86% support the idea that children in school should learn how the EU works. It therefore seems that public opinion understands that something important is happening in Europe, with which it has difficulty being associated with a lack of information. In this respect the community institutions take their part in the responsibility, and have their roles to play. The time is therefore nigh, as Nicolas Moussis claims in an article of December 2000 (1), that a European Council is dedicated to the improvement of the information for citizens on European affairs. This Council could call for the correction of the inaccuracies spread around by certain media in Member states; it could invite the institutions to explain to the citizens and to the media (including regional media) in layman's terms, the justifications of the common policies; it could incite the member states to finally agree on a school textbook on European culture and history, putting more emphasis on unity in diversity, than on wars and hate, and all in the aim surpassing mutual misunderstandings...


Beyond the information which speaks to the brain, it would be appropriate for the EU to commit to communication which speaks to the heart. Certain rights and liberties (equality of administrative handling, free circulation, free enterprise) are today considered as established and free-flowing by citizens. Maybe it would do to remind them that they are a consequence of European construction, like the peace that our continent has known for over fifty years. To restore the EU's image, the emphasis could also be put on concrete actions that interest and really touch people's lives. Education, cinema, and sport would be good examples. Finally, it is imperative to explain community jargon and to remember that the EU does not only apply to an elite circle in the capitals, but also to associations and citizens, on whom it should primarily lean.

The latter are consumers, they want to know more, they want to be convinced. It is up to the institutions to organise themselves around a voluntary policy to overcome the reticence of certain media, and the intellectually dishonest instramentalism of certain national policies. The EU does not seem to be less democratic than a normal state where the representative system is in force. There are certainly definite improvements which could be brought about, but the main problem remains the bad press and it is in the interest and future of the EU to remedy this. Oh to tell oneself this! To simply say it!

(1) Review of the Common Market and of the EU n° 436, pp. 153-159