Saturday, January 29, 2005

Beware the "helpful" commission

Being ever so helpful, the EU commission is offering to help individual governments with "public information campaigns" on the proposed constitution. So writes Rory Watson in Brussels, for The Times.

This, apparently is the brainchild of the fragrant Margot Wallström, commissioner for truth and reconciliation. She wants the commission to be "an active partner in informing European citizens about the content of the constitution and its advantages in relation to the present treaties".

Apparently unaware of what she is saying, she pledges that the commission will "do all it can to ensure the entry into force of the constitution", and is ready to help member states with "the development of national strategies".

The very fact that is has an "agenda" – as if we didn’t know – surely rules out any serious idea that the commission can provide "information", which implies neutrality, rather than propaganda, but from inside the Brussels "bubble" no doubt Wallström thinks she is being entirely reasonable.

The "assistance" on offer includes "opinion surveys and media monitoring, initiatives to stimulate debates, the development of websites and videos, the production of brochures and the definitive version of the constitution in 20 languages."

Perhaps, if the commission is so interested in developing websites, this Blog should apply for some EU money - just kidding!

However, the initiative otherwise seems well advanced. It is responding to requests from foreign ministers of the EU member states, which apparently asked it last November to consider what role it could play in the ratification process.

It claims it has no intention of becoming involved in domestic political battles and thus, amazingly, argues that its sole function would be "to provide factual information in order to foster an informed debate."

Nevertheless, a British "government spokesman" is expressing caution. "Clearly, it would be wrong for substantial Commission or European money to be spent in support of either side", he says. "The referendum is a matter entirely for the British people."

The UK Independence Party, in a rare digression from its internal squabbling, managed to tell The Times that it would "be disgraceful if taxpayers’ money were to be used to pay for the yes campaign".

Predictably, the egregious Richard Corbett disagrees. The commission has a legitimate role, he says: "Provided it sticks to information and does not campaign, it can contribute to a better informed debate," he said. "If the anti-Europeans do not want that, it shows what they are up to."

However, like it or not, the commission is going to do its best to swing the vote. Not least of its activities is to fund a series of training seminars organised by the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht, instructing journalists on how to cover the constitution.

Helpfully, the Centre, which proudly boasts of its "financial support from the European Commission" also offers a series of handbooks on how to report EU issues, including a source book from which journalists may obtain information.

As an indication of where it is coming from, it helpful tells aspirant hacks that the BBC website is an "excellent, regularly updated, free source of news". Beware, as they say, of helpful commissions.

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