Friday, 29 October 2010

EU just wants a little love

Let's face it, these days the EU is just not very popular with the European public. Gone are the heady days in the early 2000's when there was boundless and perhaps unrealistic ambition in Brussels for what the EU could accomplish. Today, as the financial crisis bites and people's confidence in the common market has been damaged, one of the EU's biggest problems is how to win the love of its public.

This week Justice and Citizenship Commissioner Vivane Reding and Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier unveiled a new bundle of consumer protection mesures, and the main message seemed to be, "Please, love us!" But Reding seems determined that this raft of new rules, coupled with the introduction of a new 'Single Market Act', will be accompanied by an assertive communication campaign that will try to make sure EU citizens know that these new benefits and protections are coming from Brussels.

One of the biggest complaints from people here in Brussels is that the EU public doesn't love the EU because they don't know what the EU does for them. The lack of citizen knowledge about the EU is an undeniable reality. I've often written about the 'willful ignorance' regarding the EU displayed in the UK even among the most educated people, but the fact is even on the continent apart from the well-educated most people know fairly little about what the EU does, or about the benefits it brings to citizens. One of the consistently bizarre examples for me has been the continued lack of knowledge of the EU cap on roaming rates for mobile phones. Though the rate that phone companies can charge you for using your phone abroad within the EU was capped three years ago - reducing the roaming rate for EU citizens by 3/4 - people still seem to be unaware of it. Incredibly, nobody seems to have noticed that back in July 2007 they were suddenly paying four times less for using their phone abroad.

Or perhaps they've noticed the change but think its due to the benevolence of their phone company. I remember when the switch happened I got a text message from my old British carrier, T-Mobile, telling me they had good news - they had decided to lower roaming rates for their customers! This was after T-Mobile had spent years fighting the roaming cap in Brussels. I was so enraged by their attempt to take credit for a legislative requirement they had fought that I cancelled my plan with them.

But I'm sure I was one of only a very few of their customers to know the real truth about why the roaming rates were coming down. I even remember seeing a BBC report about the changes at the time that didn't once mention it was a regulation coming from the EU - they seemed to imply it was either a new UK government regulation or a voluntary initiative by phone comapnies. So in the end, the mobile companies (in Britain at least) were able to take credit for something that was in fact done by Brussels.

And this is drices the European Commission crazy. Despite the raft of consumer protection mesures that they have passed in the past decade (passenger rights for air travellers that made sure people were reimbursed during the ash cloud crisis, mandates for universal phone chargers, minimum vacation days per year, etc) consumers are consistently unaware that these measures have come from the EU. Earlier this summer I was profoundly annoyed when The Guardian did another one of its quarterly "wow Americans sure do have a short number of vacation days" stories and, while touting the fact that Britons are entitled to a minimum of 20 days off per year, failed to mention once that they only have this right because it is obliged under EU law. The article didn't mention the EU at all, and again seemed to imply that this minimum was through the benevolence of Westminster. I don't think there can be any dounbt, especially in this era of austerity, that the UK government would set a lower minimum holiday time if they weren't forbidon to do so by the EU.

The new consumer measures

Redding, who many think is taking such high-profile positions recently because she is angling to be the next commission president, said the objective of the new measures is to make EU citizenship, "a tangible reality in people's daily lives." The 25 measures, which will be taken in the next three years, will include:
  • Making divorce rules for couples from different member states more clear, particularly regarding property rights
  • Improving protection for travellers who book holidays over the internet
  • Improve consular protection for EU citizens who are travelling somewhere where their home country doesn't have an embassy (ie they could use an EU consular office or that of another member state)
  • Making the registration of cars in a new member state easier to avoid double taxation.
  • Initiatives to help small businesses obtain financing and public procurement contracts across borders
  • Improving the market for digital music by creating a one-stop-shop for artists to sell music in the EU.
The list also includes measures to increase communication efforts to make sure citizens know about the new rights granted to them by the Lisbon Treaty and by new legislation. This would include larger and more sustainable funding for Euronews, the only pan-European media.

But it remains to be seen whether a new raft of consumer-friendly measures can really make the public love the EU. After all, they come in the form of a strengthening of the single market, at a time when people's confidence in that market is at an all-time low. The single market has given great advantages to consumers but, as recent years have shown, it also came with major pitfalls. Banking consolidation across Europe actually had the effect of spreading the risk across the EU - particularly to countries whose domestic banks had not engaged in the kinds of risky practices that others had. And freer labour markets created less certainty for workers that has been exasperated during the crisis.

Of course the misery caused by the financial crisis is temporary, while the benefits of a single market are long-term. But these days, in the midst of the crisis, the single market no longer has the lustre it once did. Gone are the says when you could just yell "single market benefits!" to get something to pass in Brussels. 2012 will mark the 20th anniversary of the market. By that time, will EU citizens be prepared to celebrate it, or dismantle it? Effective communication about its benefits may make all the difference in the world.

1 comment:

Captain Kid said...

I'd consider me as a pro-european citizen, but i'll tell you the last thing that has annoyed me (and a lot of people i know): the eu won't punish france because of their highly racist roma-policy that undermines the most european freedom of all - the freedom of movement. why not? other member states would have had a different treatment, but it's france...
so what do we need the union for if it doesn't even guarantee these basic freedoms?