Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Communication, citizenship and the construction of a fair and responsible Europe

Today, Coordination Sud and EducaSol organised a seminar in Paris – ‘What role for citizens in the construction of a fair and responsible Europe?’

Part of the programme of the French EU presidency, it brought together actors interested in Europe and international solidarity – to exchange information and enhance the coherence of development education interventions, especially by civil society.

Opening speakers reflected on the challenges communicating on ‘Europe’ to citizens. Ghislaine Deschaumes of the Maison de l’Europe de Paris argued that Europe has for many years treated its citizens as ‘consumers’ rather than ‘players’ to be engaged and empowered.

She argued that recent ‘no’ votes at the EU level were a “major shock’ to the system, leading to increasing efforts to communicate the Europe ‘project.’ But, she concluded, can the citizens have ownership of this ‘European project’ without wide discussion and engagement? And are there practical ways for citizens to discuss the European project among themselves?

She saw an important role for civil society groups, but an urgent need to give ourselves the means to be competent in developing our own agendas, to get overviews of ongoing policy agendas, and being able to contribute to them. We need to “make sure that civil society is actively present” in the various discussions on development policies.

The second session looked into the ‘facts’ – how do citizens perceive Europe and Europe’s development aid efforts?

The OECD’s Robert Zimmerman kicked off with the results of recent Eurobarometer polls on the perception of European aid by its citizens..

His main conclusions: For the past 20 years, we have had strong positive public opinion on development aid; most citizens favour increasing aid; Citizens want to ‘do good’ for others … but they lack knowledge, and self confidence and guidance/education.

The most striking contradiction from the survey is that while the majority favour more aid, the majority also perceive that much public aid is wasted.

Of concern for the upcoming EU presidency, one of his charts showed how communications directors of OECD aid agencies ranked the interest of their parliamentarians in development issues. Among the countries with lowest rankings: the Czech Republic.

Zimmerman was followed by Jean-Daniel Levy from CSA who reported on a recent phone survey of French citizens for Coordination SUD. He qualified his remarks with the news that the poll was complicated by the emerging financial crisis: When people feel less secure personally, they are likely to be less committed to international actions.

Answers to the 3 questions indicate that French citizens: 1) favour solutions to the financial crisis that strike a balance between European and developing country interests (over putting Europe first, or putting developing countries first), 2) favour Europe maintaining its funding for development aid (60% of respondents), and 3) suggest that development actors who should be most involved to improve the role of Europe in the world are, in order of most highly regarded, EU member state governments, EU institutions, private enterprise, civil society …

Jean Jacques Mbella Abega from a youth and democracy network Cameroun commented on some different points mentioned in the surveys, asking “who is Europe?” He observed from personal experience that European citizens are mostly not well-informed about development. He called for a more bottom-up approach to development education and awareness raising, based around real local dialogues. He drew on examples in Africa that could inform what Europe needs to do.

In the afternoon, participants broke into groups to discuss various issues – the group on medias explored ways that European aid is being addressed and communicated.

by Peter Ballantyne

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