Members' Research Service By / May 4, 2021

Communicating and perceiving the EU budget: Challenges and outcomes

This paper presents the issues related to communicating the EU budget, outlining its importance for the perception of democratic legitimacy of the EU and the challenges involved in presenting it to citizens in clear, comprehensible terms.

© calvste / Adobe Stock

Written by Alina Dobreva,

© calvste / Adobe Stock

This paper presents the issues related to communicating the EU budget, outlining its importance for the perception of democratic legitimacy of the EU and the challenges involved in presenting it to citizens in clear, comprehensible terms. The EU budget is a financial translation of the objectives and strategy of the EU and the means to execute its policies. Therefore, the EU budget has a key role in framing and building the image and perception of each EU policy and the EU as a whole. Given the difficulties associated with communicating the EU budget, it is ever more important to put emphasis and efforts on presenting it to the public in the best possible way.

Part 1 analyses the main features of the EU budget from the point of view of communication opportunities and challenges. It furthermore addresses some of the most popular myths regarding the EU budget and answers questions such as whether its size is justified and who decides on it.

The extension of the multiannual financial framework (MFF) to seven years has had a positive impact on the predictability and stability of EU spending. However, it has also led to misalignment with the electoral cycles, which makes it harder to communicate the link between Europeans’ political choices and the political priorities of the EU budget. The introduction of new genuine own resources has the potential, on the one hand, to make Europeans see a clearer link between their own money and the EU budget, and, on the other, to weaken the strongest point associated with presenting the budget to citizens – the net balance of Member States.

While the expenditure side of the EU budget is what citizens are most familiar with, it is also the subject of misperceptions, among other things, as to who actually manages it. The language and structure of EU budget expenditure is a message in its own right and has an impact on citizens’ perception of EU spending. Each of the following institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, as well as the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Court of Auditors (ECA) and the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) – has a role in communication addressed at citizens as regards the EU budget. It is paramount to ensure that this communication delivers what it promises to do. The performance of the EU budget and, even more importantly, the information that citizens have about it, play a key role in how people perceive and evaluate the EU budget. Therefore, the current emphasis on performance budgeting has strong potential to alter citizens’ views of the EU budget.

Part 2 presents the current outcomes of the process linked to communicating the EU budget, based on Eurobarometer data. It analyses two key questions – do Europeans support a bigger EU budget, and what is the picture of the EU budget drawn by citizens – as a perceived and as a desired EU budget. In 2020, support for attributing greater financial means to the EU stood at 48 %, at its highest since 2005, when Eurobarometer surveys on this topic began. It varied between 69 % in Portugal and 16 % in Denmark. The data show that public opinion does not strictly follow the dominant narrative of beneficiaries and contributors. Citizens of beneficiary countries such as Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia consistently offer much weaker support for increasing the EU budget than the EU average. At the other end is Italy – a contributor Member State, whose citizens consistently voice stronger support for increased funding than the EU average.

Citizens have been asked what they think the EU budget is spent on and what they would like it to be spent on. The pictures drawn by their perceptions and their desires are very different. Citizens considered employment, social affairs and public health as the top priority areas of EU spending in 2020. It had been an overwhelming priority for them for the entire period covered by the surveys and was the unanimous choice as a top priority for citizens in all EU Member States in 2015. Citizens’ preference for EU spending on climate change has grown, and demonstrates potential for an even stronger preference for financial backing in the future.

The difference between citizens’ perceptions of what the EU budget is spent on and their desired EU spending priorities creates two types of gaps. One is the ‘underspending perception gap’ – the share of people who perceive a certain policy to be an EU spending priority is lower than the share of people who express a desire for that policy to be an EU spending priority. The largest underspending perception gap is in the area of employment, social affairs and public health. The ‘overspending perception gap’ is when a bigger share of citizens perceive a policy to be an EU spending priority than the share of people who want it to be such a priority. Here, the largest one is as regards administrative and personnel costs.

Despite some fluctuations over time, Europeans have very stable perceptions about what the EU’s spending priorities are. The biggest increase in the share of people perceiving a category to be an EU spending priority is related to immigration issues, and the biggest decrease is related to assistance to EU neighbours, including candidate countries. In both cases, perceptions shift with some delay relative to the actual events linked to the change in EU spending on the respective policy areas. It would be fair to say that the shift in citizens’ perceptions of EU spending is rather slow even in the case of sudden events related to an actual change in EU spending.

The priorities of EU budget spending, as perceived by the citizens, are also very different from the real EU budget priorities, which accounts for a significant ‘reality gap’ between citizens’ perceptions of EU spending and real EU spending. For example, data show that the perception of an overgrown EU administration is rather strong and stable over time. Citizens’ perceptions and desires regarding EU spending on three policy areas – administrative and personnel costs and buildings, employment, social affairs and public health, and agriculture and rural development, is examined in detail in this paper. These categories present examples of very diverse patterns of preferences and perceptions about EU budget spending.

Knowledge and perceptions about the elements that make up the EU budget are shaped through various channels, many of them dependent on the national, rather than the European, public sphere and portrayal of the EU budget debate. However, differences in the way the EU budget is perceived cannot be explained only by national factors. Further research is needed on the personal-level determinants of these perceptions to account for the growing influence of the European public sphere and cross-border communications, as well as to bring messages closer to citizens by fine-tuning them to their interests and concerns. The build-up of communication challenges related to the EU budget outlined in this paper has contributed to the misconceptions of citizens and the gaps between their perceptions and the reality of EU budgetary affairs. Some of the misconceptions could be addressed through a dedicated and well-targeted communication strategy. Other reasons, irrespective of their political and/or financial justification, create communication complexities that will continue to be beyond the reach of the public. These can only be addressed through the concerted efforts of policy-makers in bringing the EU budget closer to EU citizens in communication terms. Significant steps in this direction are the growing focus on results in budgetary reporting and the reform of the own resources system, both of which have the potential to contribute positively to communication on the EU budget and make it more comprehensible to citizens.

Read this complete in-depth analysis on ‘Communicating and perceiving the EU budget: Challenges and outcomes‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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