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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
How can the EU improve its image?
It hopes that the proposals for simpler legislation and greater openness will counter what is seen as growing alienation and distrust among the union's citizens.
European Commission President Romano Prodi wants to "reconnect" with the public by cutting red tape, speeding up EU legislation and demonstrating the Commission does a valuable job.
A series of opinion polls has shown that ordinary people know little and care less about the EU, a disregard highlighted by Ireland's recent rejection of the Nice Treaty on EU enlargement.
How can the EU become closer to the people? Does it need to?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Nick, London, UK
Can I dispel a myth here? I work for the European Commission. I pay income tax and all other taxes like every other EU citizen. Income tax is levied at rates from 8% to 45% and rises quickly. I pay far more in tax than I would in the UK. I also pay health insurance and pension contributions to my employer. I pay VAT at 21% on everything I buy and all local taxes due on my property. I live in Belgium because I like it here and at the end of the day it is more relaxed and cheaper than in the UK. Anyone in the UK can get a job wherever they want in the EU. This is one of the EU's achievements. To get my job, I sat a very stiff public examination with a pass rate of 3% of all candidates who sit the exam (I am a translator from 7 languages). I would get paid more in a large international organisation or if I were a British diplomat posted abroad or a member of NATO staff. I do not consider myself a burden on "ordinary" taxpayers, indeed I have never worked so hard in life as I have at the Commission.
Before that I worked in the UK and then Germany. Stop complaining and do something constructive to improve your lot if you are unhappy with your life! And if you want information about the EU, it is available online. For years, British politicians of all hues have used the EU as a punch bag to divert attention from their own failures and now we see the result in the so-called gap between the public and the EU. It is hardly surprising, but information about all the work being done is available at the click of a mouse if you are interested in finding out.
Why do all pro-EU people assume that those of us who dislike it as an institution are ill-informed, xenophobic and right wing? Such assumptions are just a substitute for rational argument. In my view a "more democratic" EU would make it even worse. Do we really want to be ruled by a Euro Parliament in which we have 10% of the members? The EU was born out of fear of another European conflict and some would even claim that it (rather than NATO) achieved this during the past 50 years. Now it will be the cause of the next conflict because it is too large and disparate to be democratic and is destructive of individual countries' democracies by excessive regulation, driven largely by Germany and France and acquiesced in by our own Governments who are afraid to "miss the train", "not be at the heart of Europe", "lack influence" and all the other garbage we are fed.
1. Return powers to elected national governments.
2. Abolish the wasteful talking shop known as the European Parliament.
3. Allow all states to have opt-outs from any future treaties.
4. All nations must have referendums before entering the euro and before any treaty is agreed.
5. Announce that the limits of political and economic integration have been reached as to go further would be undemocratic.
Maybe it should improve rather than just improve its image?
Stop mucking about with political union and get back to a free trade club! By all means the European leaders should meet and arrange policy for things such as the ESA and to present effective opposition to the US's sillier ideas but it doesn't need a parliament (especially not one with no powers) and it doesn't need a common currency!
Either the EU wants to survive or it doesn't. If it doesn't then the current muddle will achieve that end soon enough. If the EU does want to survive it needs to become more politically neutral (less social engineering, scrap the CAP and so on) and more accountable. If an EU regulation costs a business money, the business should be able to sue the EU for compensation. And directly elected commissioners, not appointed "jobsworths", would make a huge difference.
Fourthly, to the ill-informed US commentator who thinks that EU threatens national identity: the European national identities are much deeper that just territory, governance and trade. That national identity which is threatened by EU, must be already in deep crisis. Finally, if you just step outside Europe, anyone will realise what a historic, momentous efforts are being made to overcome the narrow boundaries of the nation-state and toward creating real "world citizens". I say, please bring in more EUs in Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America to create a more tolerant world and as answers to narrow nationalist sentiments
Why assume there is anything wrong with the image? The image of EU institutions is perfectly consistent with their reality - undemocratic, corrupt, wasteful and unaccountable. The whole EU experiment should be scrapped.
The EU will continue to be supported by European politicians as long as it remains a "club" for these politicians in their own retirement. The reward for loyal service of politicians of all parties throughout Europe is to be given a middle/senior executive position within one of the EU departments. No wonder it has lost all credibility as an organisation.
Yes the EU needs to overhauls its image - the problem is how to make things understandable for a general population who would rather sit back and watch Big Brother and want little more than something to blame for all their problems. I'm afraid (and embarrassed) in Britain there is just to much of a culture of me, me, me, blame the EU/USA/Third World/big corporations etc..
Why do we need a European Union? To promote free trade? We have the WTO to do this globally. To bind people closer, an awful lot of people in the UK have friends and family in Australia, India, Canada, RSA etc, the EU and it's parochial concerns are of little interest to them.
No dismantle it, or row back and model it in on the Commonwealth.
As for acting as a bulwark against the USA the world would be a more stable place with just the one superpower.
The readiness of European states - and peoples - for further integration may actually rise, if political parties and politicians (especially at the European Parliament)
find ways to agree on some common denominators. And support for the European Union would probably already be rising, if there weren't so many Europeans who apparently still overestimate their own nations' global influence.
I think most people here have missed the point; the EU exists for the people that work for it, like Neil Kinnock, et al. It is not there to do anything constructive for us - the masses. If I could earn £150,000/year and pay £7500 tax, I'd go for it-wouldn't you? Come to think about it, I like to pay only £7500 tax on what I earn now!
Get rid of the whole bunch of freeloading incompetents now.
We still have a huge barrier in the European Union, and that is language. For Europe to succeed we need to speak the same language, otherwise everyone in Europe will always feel foreign to one another. (English will probably be the most realistic choice.)
Mat Allen hits the nail squarely on the head...we would be much better off outside the EU, and would have the freedom to improve our own public services rather those of other countries.
I suppose we should applaud the EU for at least trying to address its terrible image problem. I think it should start by listening to people, and especially the legitimate concern that the EU is trying to achieve too much, too soon, without a mandate from the European populace. I wonder if anyone in Brussels actually thinks that people vote no in referenda because they want self-determination, rather than blindly assuming that we don't know what's good for us...
Even Mr Prodi himself is not elected but appointed and that after a lot of "horse trading" between the member states who all had a favourite candidate, because they thought that one candidate or another was best for them. If the EU is to be seen as a relevant body instead of an exclusive club for politicians only, then EU commissioners should be democratically elected by the people they are supposed to represent.
To improve the image of the EU, you have to give the people more information. For example, how many times have you heard the EU described as "too bureaucratic". If the truth be told, Brussels employs fewer civil servants that Birmingham City Council. Do away with the spin, distortion and disinformation and give people the facts. And hopefully they'll become more open to forging deeper relationships with our European cousins. The problem is, however, how do you do this in a country dominated by a Eurosceptic press?
Sovereignty and culture should be protected and preserved. States should not feel they are ceding either for the purpose of free trade. Some or both will erode necessarily as the Union matures and trade blurs traditional lines. However, the American experience has been that information, accountability and participation by citizens breeds a more fertile field for dialogue and trust.
I think its a bit late for a image change, I mean, would you go out and buy Des O'Connor records just because he got a new image like David Beckham? I think not! Lets face it, the EU is a prime example of trying to centralise government, economy and legislation. By doing this it is impossible not to alienate the public. The fact is that the public aren't stupid and the EU should be doing things that will benefit member countries not hinder them with mass bureaucracy. Anyway, I'm off to make a million by manufacturing reels of red tape!
The European Commission has been the butt end of many jokes over the years about straight bananas, prawn crisps and other such irrelevances. Why has it not responded to the allegations? Because it never had the authority or the budget to do so. That has changed slightly now, thank goodness, and the Commission occasionally responds to lies and false accusations, witness the odd letter or two from various commissioners in British newspapers.
The British, more particularly the English, press will do anything to sell a good story, whether there is any real truth in it or not. There is excellent information available on the net about the EU institutions where people can find out most things they want to know. If they can use a computer, they have access to the institutions online. If not, why not write a letter and ask what you want to know? Ignorance is no excuse. As for the Commission being overblown, it employs about 20 thousand staff who deal with everything
the Commission is responsible for under EU Treaties on behalf of 350 million EU citizens.
The first thing I see is that the EU could quit being hypocrites. Kyoto for example. It was the EU who got the thing signed, but when you are talking about pollution you only take into account individual nations. When something is good for all it is the EU, but when it is bad it is a particular nations fault. If Texas was to bomb Mexico it would be an American invasion whether or not the other 49 States helped. Just as in the EU needs to be more connected. You want to be one for all then act like it good or bad. I see the EU failing like everything else Europe has done. i.e. Kyoto.
Richard King, England
As a free-trade organisation, the EU shows great promise. As a political body it is doomed to failure.
The question betrays the problem it is facing. The EU does not need to "improve its image". It needs to improve. Improving the image is nothing more than spin, which certainly a lot of Britons are utterly sick of, having endured four years of it.
If the European Commission was a business, it would have negative share-value. It produces nothing except red-tape which it then uses to tie the real wealth-producers in knots. If people were given the option to fund it voluntarily instead of via compulsory taxation and levies, what do you think its income would be? 50p? 25p? Dump it!
The issue is not the face of Europe (EU). The real problem is that, apart from the economical unification, in almost any other issue there is no unification and there is no feeling of solidarity between the members. This is the most difficult and will take time, but also specific policies have to be applied in this direction. At the moment these policies do not exist as far as I can see.
Shaun Kilcoin, UK
To improve the EU's image the eurocrats should: a) make up their mind where they are based; b) take a 90% pay cut; c) remove corrupt, nepotistic staff; d) stop interfering in member states' internal affairs; e) give back democracy to the EU and let the people of Europe have regular referendums on membership f) or better, sack themselves, pack their bags, go back to their member states and save us all a fortune.
Simon Ashall, UK
CNS in Durham - how is allowing the European Parliament to elect Commissioners an increase in democracy? It is merely an extension of the current undemocratic policy in the UK, where the Lords is largely chosen by the Commons.
People cannot identify with EU. They fear the loss of their country's identity. Beinging a part of a mass you become smaller and less important.
The EU was created by politicians for politicians. They have built themselves luxury buildings; paid themselves and their associates top salaries and expenses. The EU is all about power, power to compete with the USA in the world. It cannot be changed by a little window-dressing and it will not dismantle itself, so I think we are lumbered!
Ian, United Kingdom
Disband it. Get rid of it. It doesn't work. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Public perceptions of the EU will always remain bad while the Commission in particular exhibits all the worst aspects of the national civil services and remains largely unaccountable for its actions. Only direct accountability for all its actions to the European Parliament and the replacement of the appointed commissioners by a cabinet of elected MEPs will afford any respect. Corruption, inefficiency and self service is endemic and leads to a cycle of demoralisation in the institutions itself which in turn allows the power grabbers to turn the institutions to their own agendas. Address this issue and a large percentage of the perception problems will disappear.
Jon Worth, France (from UK)
The EU cannot possibly represent the views of its member state populations if they have no accountability to them. Why in the world should anyone in a member state believe that the EU will be concerned with their interests? Why would anyone believe the EU can reform its imperial way? From the pro EU posts here it seems those that support the EU are just enamoured with world socialism. Truly a highway to hell.
Does anyone in Britain ever remember being asked by any government whether they wanted someone in Europe making decisions about their day-to-day life? The EEC was never publicised as the start to a Federal Europe but this is what Europe has woken up and found itself with. Good on the Irish for rejecting enlargement in their referendum - now watch how much regard the European Commission has for its individual member nations' rights and opinions, as it tries to push ahead regardless of the wishes of the Irish. The EU is an absolute disaster waiting to happen.
Giuseppe Romani, USA
I have little or no idea how the system in Europe works, I know how the US system works, even understood the USSR system of government. However, I am at a loss to work out who does what, what power they have if any, or where the stupid ideas the media seem to keep hawking on about come from. The only piece of paper ever put through my door was crass, condescending and assumed you were a prat and didn't know where Belgium was. No explanation of government or why I should vote for someone to represent my ideas, just vote for your usual party. Why? I thought the EEC was independent of political interference from home governments, if not what's the purpose of the euro parliament, it just sounds like a gravy train to me.
As for should we go the whole hog, we joined the EEC for trade reasons, not to be governed by a load of hasbeens from political parties in EEC countries. Trade yes, the rest no point. We are different. The French realise this as do the Dutch. We don't need to be federalised to survive.
Change its image - what's wrong with an undemocratic, self serving, out of touch with the public, out of touch with reality, unaccountable institution that would integrate well with all of the totalitarian regimes that have existed in history?
The EU can be closer to the people and more popular if it rolls back its power and control over the internal affairs of its member-states. It is too powerful and is trying to be like the Federal Government in the U.S. That will not work for a group of countries whose histories, languages, cultures, customs are very disparate and go back centuries. I'm not surprised that the EU is losing popularity, given how big and powerful it has become.
The amount of misinformation here is scary. Surely it's time to rein in the British press? Naturally I have no objection to reporting the news, but half of the opinions here, taken straight from the press, are downright lies. I'm not happy with the unelected status of the members of the commission, but compared to what we have to vote for in the UK, I don't think I can really complain.
The best way the EU can improve its image, so far as I am concerned, is to stop meddling in American domestic affairs, and end the knee-jerk criticism against our foreign policy. The US is not nearly critical of the EU, even though the body is undemocratic and virtually unaccountable, and for our consideration we receive nothing but rancour. The EU needs to realise that it cannot strong-arm other nations, nor can it shame its neighbours to achieve its objectives. I would have hoped the Irish rejection of the Treaty of Nice would have opened some eyes, but sadly, all it has resulted in is criticism of Ireland. It is long past time the EU grew up.
What the EU needs most of all is credibility and faith from the population of Europe. It lacks this at the moment and the individual governments seem to still be fighting for their space and influence.
Ultimately a democratic federalist system will have to be implemented to give Europe what it needs the most - a European Union it can trust.
Joining the EU will help wean the UK from its reliance towards the US. The sooner people see this the better. I find it quite embarrassing watching Tony Blair pandering to a dubiously elected, far-right, US president!
Other European countries are not so dissimilar to the UK, so why shouldn't a centralised governing body work? Besides, you can hardly call the UK the best country in Europe, as we see it plummeting down to 14th place in terms of standard of living. We don't have that much to lose by joining the EU.
The EU has rightly been described as yesterday's answer to the day before's problem. It doesn't need a makeover, it needs to phase itself out. History shows that empires meet their end either through warfare or apathy. Let us hope apathy wins the day in Europe.
Paul, Boston, USA
Thank God for the EU as without it there would be no-one
to stop the US from dominating the world even more than
it does now.
As for the matter of transparency the individual citizen should
also make an effort to find the information he needs to be able
to make a judgement. Why does it need to be continually handed to
us on a plate?
When the EU identifies a constructive use for itself then it will improve its image. At the moment I see it as a device for over-centralisation, taking away the power of decision making away from those who are quite capable of looking after themselves. For example the fact that we can't use pounds and ounces anymore hasn't changed the quantities of food that people buy for themselves and just what is wrong with a bendy cucumber? The EU is an institution that creates work for itself as it sees fit whether useful or not.
By becoming democratic and accountable.
If the EU was to concentrate more on matters that people want changed, such as the overpricing of cars, or global issues, and forget about imposing unnecessary regulations and laws on people, the EU might be seen as a benign entity, but when it is always seen as forcing unpopular or unnecessary regulation on people, it is doomed to be unpopular.
Jason from Ireland... of course you're going to think the EU is a great idea because your country is a massive net beneficiary of European money. Whereas the UK is a net provider to the system. I'm sure we could improve our transport and health systems a lot quicker if we didn't have to put in the amount of money we do to support most of the other countries! Expanding the EU to more than how it currently stands is only going to make the problem worse. Though it would seem your voice is in a minority due to the recent vote on the ratification of the Nice Treaty.
As for making the EU better... I echo the sentiments of not trying to make all countries into the same thing. They aren't. Leave them to make their own interest rates etc, because one single figure isn't going to work.
Austin Spreadbury, UK
I'm more concerned about the lack of reasoned debate on the subject. There really is a lot of ignorance and a whole saga of myth spread about the EU. While there are serious problems, carping on about trivialities (e.g. bananas) won't address them. Too many people don't think for themselves or examine what is actually happening.
Assure the citizens of Europe that belonging to a union of equal partners does not detail a diminishing of national identity or a loss of independence - but don't use the United Nations as a model!
Aside from an image change, the EU needs to educate its citizens about its institutions and the way they function. Maybe then people would see the point in voting for their MEPs.
Eli Oshorov, UK
It's so disappointing to see so many negative comments from the UK regarding the EU. If that's the way you feel, why not leave? Regarding the usefulness of the EU, what about the recent Kyoto Treaty, the investigation into overpriced cars, just as a starting point? The Commission and the rest of the EU do a brilliant job, it's a disgrace that the national governments use the EU as an scapegoat for their own failings. At least the EU recognises the problems and is trying to change. The same can't be said for the UK, just look at your abysmal health and transport systems. Or maybe you're jealous that the other EU countries are better than yours.
The problem here is lack of information. As an average worker in the UK I know virtually nothing about how the EU works, what its structure is, who my representative is or how we can have an input - and not for want of trying either. There is just no down-to-earth information available. The only information we hear is about the latest corruption scandal. Is it any wonder nobody cares about the EU?
How about doing something useful?
The only way the EU can improve its image with the people is to dismantle itself - permanently.
The EU's image may be weak internally, but it's international weight is growing. With the US becoming more inactive on the world stage; Kyoto, missile defence and now germ warfare issues - Europe is in a position to debunk them as the world superpower.
The recent example of US policies under George Bush is exactly why the European Union needs to be more united. Without a strong voice, the United States will simply do as she wishes.
Stop trying to force all countries to be the same - we aren't the same and should respect cultural differences. Stop imposing pointless and bureaucratic laws and expecting us to obey them to the letter. Stop protecting the rights of drug dealers, burglars and muggers and focus on the rights of the law-abiding majority. Finally stop pretending to be something great when the majority (even in Germany) think the whole idea is a waste of time.
It's an excellent opportunity to break the tradition of over-bureaucracy. A slimmed down and DYNAMIC EU would do the world a good turn. Increasing accountability to real Europeans would also help. Right now, it isn't clear who actually appoints the representatives in the EU.
This is a nice sentiment, but the EU
actions do not demonstrate this. It is an
additional layer of bureaucracy piled on
another, very dictatorial and arbitrary,
and unelected. I would like to see a series
of referenda offered to the peoples in the various
member states (a few years on) to see if this
is what they really want.
I don't believe the EC has ever attempted to connect with its people before. In the past it has been too afraid to impose on local governments. Scare stories were not responded to; openness did not seem to be part of this institution. If it now wants to connect, then it needs to advertise itself through the media, and also use local governments to highlight its causes. It's never too late to start, even after nearly 50 odd years. After all how many people know about the 9th May (Europe Day)?
"Demonstrating the Commission does a valuable job"? This sounds a bit like "The public's wrong so we should show them how wrong they are." Most people are too sceptical to take at face value the publicity produced by the party in Government saying what a good job they're doing, so why do they expect this to be treated differently? If the European Commission really wants to connect itself with EU citizens, it is going to have to become totally democratically accountable to them. Let the European Parliament elect the European Commission and give them the ability to strike off individual commissioners, and that might make a real difference.
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