EUROPEAN REGIONAL AFFAIRS PAPER NO 2. MAY 2000
WALES - EU AWARENESS AND INFORMATION PROVISION
Things can only get better
Citizens want Europe to step in on the big issues where national political systems are failing…
Only 2% in the UK claim to know "a great deal" about the EU, while 73% know "not very much", or "nothing at all"…
Turn out in Euro elections is consistently lower than in national elections, falling with each successive election"…
"The reason for these gaps between public and European institutions is the lack of adequate links between decision makers and those affected by decisions"
Mark Leonard : DEMOS Project Report 1997
"There is a worrying trend of increasingly low turnout and there is a need to communicate better to the pubic. Politicians need to work hand in hand with the media to create a better understanding (of the Parliament)"
Eluned Morgan MEP
"The public perception of Europe stems from a lack of understanding. It is important to get the message across clearly and cogently to the people of Britain"
Glenys Kinnock MEP : Western Mail : 15.6.1999 (Post 1999 EP Elections)
2. EUROPEAN ELECTION TURNOUT - WALES
(Ascending trend to 1995, then…)
1999* 28.0% (UK : 24.0%)
*All Wales PR system
(The Labour Party internal report into the 1999 EP election outcome was entitled "The Election that never was")
3. PUBLIC PERCEPTION
Eurobarometer Survey No 52 (E.C. April 2000)
"Anti European feeling in the UK has deepened in the past year. Britain is at the bottom of almost every measure of support for the EU, its policies and institutions. Overall, 51% of EU citizens thought their country's membership was a "good thing". In the UK the figure was 29%. (Ireland :88%). Fewer than 30% of British respondents said they trusted any of the EU institutions. They also thought that they were the least knowledgeable and least well informed about the EU and the single currency"
Summary : FT 20.4.2000
4. THE ISSUES
The lack of a coherent and common basic approach to Europe by elected representatives, elected devolved bodies, and European agencies.
The message is fragmented/uncoordinated and lacks profile and conviction. This generates further public confusion and indifference in the context of a largely hostile media. It has not been helped by the break between MEP and constituency under the current form of PR, but this cannot be held as the sole cause. If a "European" identity and awareness is to be achieved, then the basic weaknesses in the current structures and institutions must be addressed.
5. THE AGENCIES
THE WELSH ASSEMBLY
Although a relatively new body, it is now possible to draw out some general patterns. Europe was to be at the heart of devolution. However, "Europe" has become synonymous with funding (in this the Assembly resembles local authorities) and key issues and external relationships are dealt with through the Economic Development Committee. The European Affairs Committee, although designed to provide the European policy overview and monitor for the Assembly, is now largely sidelined and in search of a role. It has little or no "initiation" capacity and diminishing credibility. Equally, the Objective One programme, which should have provided a major opportunity to promote a practical (rather than theoretical) example of a positive European benefit lacks any effective promotion, and in fact has been the source of negative infighting. It has further reinforced the public perception that Europe is a bureaucratic minefield, not even understood by the "experts".
THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION
The E.C.'s representation in Wales was largely dormant for the decade to 1998. Although staffed, it was invisible and remote. Public awareness was therefore nil. Professional impressions were hostile. Although great efforts have subsequently been made to turn the unit around, there is still a lagging negative perception from the past. The Commission in Wales again is too often used as a "fire fighter" for member state political problems. (Objective One being a prime example). In time this will further erode its credibility and independence by association. There are obvious resource constraints and a lack of devolved capacity (from London) to compliment the new Welsh institutions. This centralism is ironic coming from a Commission that preaches subsidiarity and regionalism.
EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT (MEPs)
There is now a major problem of voter/constituency identification. An "All Wales" constituency is unworkable, particularly when representation is drawn from three (WALES/UK) opposed parties. There is also a sense that following Labour's losses, experienced MEPs are in "denial". The mantra, "Wales is a Labour Nation" is now only an assertion, not a reality. This denial and refusal to face reality prevents effective cross party working to promote Europe as a concept (in expectation of the next EP elections). There is also the problem of the present UK government's reluctance to raise the profile of Europe, given its association with Euro membership. This is called "fighting the forces of conservatism".
Public Libraries and Local Authorities. Although established as the Commission centrally faced information "meltdown" at the end of the 1980's, these are often ineffective. The "cascade" theory does not work unless supported. Librarians are trained as generalists, not as European Information specialists. Local Authorities EU/ED Units rarely have the capacity or "open" profile to work with public information provision at any scale or detail. There is still little use of Information Technology to service this role by either agency, adding to the limits on the level of information that could be provided. A single display in a library convinces no one. A referred or "bounced" local authority contact merely adds to the user's frustration and loss of reputation.
6. WEB SITES
The Commission's Welsh representation has web space via the central web site. It provides a profile of the Welsh operation, links to information providers, and the background history of Wales in Europe. Unfortunately, these can initially only be accessed via the London website, so unless the public are aware of the linkage, the result is negated.
The European Parliament has web sites in Brussels, London and by political grouping. However, only one Welsh MEP has an individual web site and this has not been updated for over 15 months. If the object is profile and immediacy, then…
The Welsh Assembly now has an effective web site, but in European terms, of limited value. This follows from the description above. The European Committee, although initially programmed to meet fortnightly, has met on only three occasions in the last year.
The background papers, although valuable and concise, are largely externally sourced, to fit the Committee cycle. They are unlikely to attract instant public attention.
RICHARD HARRIS : ERA WALES : MAY 9 2000