How can we bring Europe closer to the citizens? A delegation of ten CIVEX-members visited Saint-Omer, France to find how a network of Europe Correspondents, launched in May 2018 in the Urban Conglomeration of Saint Omer’s area (CAPSO) by François Decoster, Mayor of Saint-Omer and Vice-president of the Hauts-de-France Region, can contribute to closing the gap.

In May 2018 François Decoster launched, as President of the Communauté d’Agglomération du Pays de Saint-Omer (CAPSO), the network of Europe Correspondents in the Audomarois region. Each city member of CAPSO  was asked to designate a member of its  Municipal Council as Europe Correspondent. They were subsequently structured in a network that supports them with training and circulation of information, thematic meetings and study trips to Brussels. “This type of activities can be further increased if there was coordination at the national level, such as in Austria”, argues Decoster, where an Austrian Network of European Local Councillors was launched in 2010 by the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the Representation of the European Commission in Austria.

A Europe that speaks more to the citizens

François Decoster noticed a strong willingness of local representatives to bring Europe’s voice to the citizens, to explain clearly what it does. He introduced this idea for a Europe Correspondent network in a number of reports, studied and adopted by the European Committee of the Regions, and part of the recommendations of the task force of Subsidiarity of which Decoster was a member.

The reason why we have a study visit to Saint-Omer is because it is more than a concept: here in Saint-Omer, we’ve put it in practice. We proposed to the municipalities that are part of our agglomeration to designate on a voluntarily basis a Europe correspondent, and today we have about 30 of these. By designating in every municipal council a representative on a voluntarily basis who would become a correspondent for European affairs we would have one more ways across Europe of spreading the message of what is being done, perhaps to say what isn’t being done, but in any case bring a correct and true message

But what does being a Europe correspondent entail?

– Europe correspondents are local and regional elected representatives who, within their governments, volunteer to be spokesperson and a recipient of all information regarding the EU.

–  The task of Europe correspondents is firstly to receive the information of for instance the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Committee of the Regions,…to know these institutions and their actions,… Within the network the Europe correspondents would then regularly meet to discuss European current affairs, to learn more about how the EU and its policies function, and to effectively involve their local citizens in European affairs. This is how we create a true capacity to have a better dialogue with representatives close to the citizens about the EU.

–  Europe correspondents will already be part of municipal and regional councils, and will only be bound by the will to become intermediaries, spokespersons; a network of interested representatives. This will allow representations such as those of the European Parliament or European Commission to be even more effective. So without costing one euro more we ensure that the information goes to the right place: as close to the citizen through the engagement of local representatives.

Mutual benefits

Decoster only sees benefits to this network of correspondents for the municipalities and for its citizens:

The benefits for the municipalities are first to be more connected with the European decisions and also to influence these. I believe that if we really want to put in place an active subsidiarity we would need – whenever we have the opportunity – to say what the right government level would be to take a decision. So every player in this active subsidiarity should be aware of the whole process of decision-making. A local representative can then take positions about decisions for the local level, for the national level and until now for the European level local representatives were not necessarily informed or trained to take positions in the decision-making process. With active subsidiarity, with a stronger engagement of local representatives about European matters we would re-establish a coherence and cohesion in a real political community: the EU.

Europe sometimes suffers from a lack of spokespersons, of being readable and understandable by its citizens. By establishing this network of volunteer Europe correspondents, within municipal councils, we reinforce the visibility and awareness of European action in the daily lives of citizens