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Europe Starts at Local Level - Challenges and Opportunities of Setting Up Networks of Europe Correspondents  

EUROPE STARTS AT LOCAL LEVEL!

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF SETTING UP NETWORKS OF EUROPE CORRESPONDENTS

On 15 February 2019 a delegation of 10 CIVEX members visited Saint-Omer, in France, at the invitation of Mr François Decoster (FR/ALDE), Mayor of Saint-Omer and Vice-president of the Hauts de France Region. The aim of the visit was to present the network of Europe Correspondents that was launched in May 2018 in the Urban Conglomeration of Saint Omer's area (CAPSO).
The delegation was composed by Matteo Luigi Bianchi (IT/ECR), Marco Dus (IT/PES), Gillian Ford (UK/EA), Olgierd Geblewicz (PL/EPP), János Ádám Karácsony (HU/EPP), Andros Karayiannis (CY/n.i.), Pauliina Hajianen (FI/EPP), Doreen Huddart (UK/ALDE), Rait Pihelgas (EE/ALDE), Christophe Rouillon (FR/PES).

The first part of the visit took place at the Theatre of Saint-Omer, in the form of a round-table of experts, local politicians and CoR members.  

It was opened by a video-message and a presentation by Ms Brigitte Trinkl, coordinator of the Austrian Network of European Local Councillors, that was launched in 2010 by the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the Representation of the European Commission in Austria. By now, there are around 1.100 ELCs widespread in the 9 Austrian Provinces; they manage their tasks for free and on a voluntary basis. ELCs are important points of contact at local level for citizens for EU-related issues and they also provide information on EU affairs to the local institutions. The motto of the initiative is "Europe starts at local level".

Mr Decoster then presented the network of  Europe Correspondents in Audomarois. He launched it in May 2018, as President of CAPSO. Each city member of CAPSO was asked to designate a member of its Municipal Council as Europe Correspondent. They have been then structured in a network that supports them with training and circulation of information, thematic meetings and study trips in Brussels. It could for sure step up its activities if there was a coordination at national level, as it is the case in Austria.

Mr Gerard Wyckaert and Mr Michel Grelier, Europe Correspondents in Audomarois, clarified that  EU Correspondents are an element of "proximity" to the territory, which could help to reject the idea of a hyper - bureaucratic EU. The main target of their activities should be young people, with events in the schools and the use of a mix of online - offline communication. They also stressed the importance of information, training and raising awareness activities for current and potential elected representatives at local level.

Mr Mikael Meunier from the EC Representation in France praised the interesting experience of Audomarois and informed that in France there is only another example of such network, in the Paris area. He added that information and the fight against disinformation are crucial issues for the Representation and that the cooperation with the local level is very important: indeed, as recent Eurobarometer surveys show, citizens trust local representatives more than they trust other levels of government.

A lively discussion between experts, local politicians and CoR members followed. They agreed that European Correspondents can be useful to make the EU closer to the citizens and to strengthen the links between EU and the local level. Mr Christophe Rouillon (FR/PES), speaking also as a representative of the Association of French Mayors (AMF),  concluded the round table putting  forward some operational proposals: (a) set up a clear and common legal framework for the Europe Correspondents , (b) create a web platform for the coordination of the Europe Correspondents, (c) spreading facts, informing in an objective way and fighting disinformation should be the priorities for Europe Correspondents and their networks.