EESC says there are lessons to be learned from the last EP election campaign and shines a spotlight on disinformation as the most serious threat to European integration.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has called upon the EU institutions to invest more in creating effective, engaging and more inclusive information and communication campaigns that would encourage Europeans to become more actively involved in EU political decision-making and boost their informed participation in the next EU elections and in the long term.
In an opinion requested by the Croatian EU presidency and adopted at its last plenary session on 10 June, the EESC stressed that such public involvement in the EU's decision-making processes was vital for reinvigorating European democracy and ensuring the legitimacy of the EU institutions.
The opinion underlined that the EU institutions needed to engage with the public, civil society and social partners in all forms of communications, especially in campaigns. It welcomed the voter-oriented approach adopted by the European Parliament's campaign for the 2019 European elections, which directly addressed public concerns and mobilised a higher number of voters than previous elections, after a decades-long downward trend.
The EESC pointed to disinformation as the biggest threat to people's informed participation in the EU's political life but also to the European Union's unity, prosperity and global influence. It called on the EU and Member States to build up the European public's resilience to manipulation through disinformation by supporting quality and independent journalism, boosting people's media literacy and investing in civic education that taught people about the EU's values.
Presenting the opinion at the EESC plenary session, rapporteur Marina Škrabalo said the opinion was very timely with regard to the current pandemic, as the health crisis was urging us to take our democracy seriously.
"There can be no social and economic recovery without democratic decision-making which is rooted in informed, active and committed Europeans who share the same broad framework of values and trust", Škrabalo told the plenary.
It is absolutely crucial that the EU invest more money and more effort in political competence-building and in developing the media literacy of all Europeans from all ethnicities, classes and local communities. We do not have time any more for polarisation and segmentation in knowledge and capacity to participate, she maintained.
Co-rapporteur of the opinion Cinzia Del Rio said the urgent need to fight disinformation had become even more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some social media misinformation about containment of the virus had directly put public health at risk.
"Europe is called upon to resolutely respond to disinformation and to support free, plural and effective social media, as well as transparent and reliable information in campaigning," Ms Del Rio said.
The EESC expressed its firm support for the EU's current efforts to counter both external and domestic disinformation and urged the Commission to ensure full compliance and follow-up regulatory action in respect of the Code of Practice on disinformation.
An expansion of the European External Action Service's action against disinformation was also called for, with special emphasis on expanding EU action against domestic disinformation as well.
Increasing violence and intimidation directed at journalists in EU Member States was a worrying trend for European democracy, as was any political interference in the media, the EESC stressed in the opinion. It called for more support for public service and independent media and for investigative journalism, as well as for developing anti-trust measures to combat media concentration and monopolies of media ownership.
The EESC recalled that, although none of the EU countries fell into the worst - "very serious situation" - category, according to the World Press Freedom Index for 2019, 12 EU Member States were classified only as "fairly good", with 6 described as "problematic", and one even classified as "difficult".
The biggest culprit in the rapid proliferation of fake news was unaccountable social media, which often failed to remove made-up stories posted for reasons that included influencing political debate and election results.
In the EESC's view, it was not sufficient to encourage social media companies and digital platforms to adopt mechanisms for removal or verification of content, but their accountability needed to be addressed by national and EU legislation.
Perhaps the strongest weapon against disinformation was maintaining a critical approach to all information, which could be taught by systematically developing people's media literacy and ensuring civic education for all Europeans.
The EESC asked for special attention to be paid to making the European elections more inclusive, since voters with disabilities or belonging to disadvantaged groups such as minorities, migrants or the poor had been chronically underrepresented in the elections or even prevented from casting their vote.
The substantially lower voter participation in EU elections as compared to national elections was a long-standing trend. However, voter turnout in the 2019 EU elections was 50.66%, up from 42.6% in 2014; this was the first time since 1979 that the number of voters had risen compared to previous elections.
According to an EP post-election survey, the key factors that prompted people to vote in the 2019 European elections were being better informed about the EU and its impact on daily life, having more young people running in the election and having more women candidates.