The European Union is a highly complex system – for journalists no less than for citizens. However, the basic information provided in this short guide should already facilitate its navigation. One of the main things always to keep in mind is: understanding the EU always requires background and awareness of the bigger picture, of the various interests and stakeholders at play. While some information is merely factual, other issues are politicised and thus cannot be taken at face value until one has heard multiple viewpoints.
As a multi-national bureaucracy with only a limited amount of native English speakers and many legal nuances, the EU’s language is not always very accessible for outsiders. This list of frequently used EU jargon helps understand official documents, and the EU’s legal database EUR-Lex also has a useful glossary.
Finding EU information from outside Brussels
In general, the various websites of the EU institutions offer a wealth of information: the latest press releases, working documents currently under debate, explanations of policy areas, and even material from the EU’s history. Everything starts with the Europa website, which eventually gives directions to anywhere else in the EU cosmos. If a query is more specific, it makes sense directly to go to the respective institution’s website, most importantly
The Internet addresses of many other institutions and bodies of the EU are listed elsewhere in this guide. Typically, the online offerings of the EU are available in multiple languages – all in English, some at least in English, French, and German, and many in all 24 official languages of the EU. If the contents relates to a third country, in many cases the information is also accessible in that country’s language; this is true in particular for the EU’s embassies, the EU Delegations.
Pro tip: It is not always easy to find things on the sprawling Europa website, not even with the site’s own search function. A good alternative option is using a customised Google search that is restricted to the domain europa.eu. Just enter the command “site:europa.eu” into Google’s search box, leave a space, and then enter the keywords you are searching for. This will only return results that are part of the EU’s official websites, and they are often ranked in a more useful way than Europa’s own search.
For journalists looking for a direct impression of what goes on at the EU, or who need audiovisual materials, the institutions maintain live streaming services and extensive repositories of audiovisual materials (videos, photos, and audio):
- The Audiovisual Service of the European Commission, also known as Europe by Satellite (EbS), offers live streaming of press conferences and events, as well as freely to use recorded material. The service also covers sessions of the European Parliament and some Council of Ministers press conferences, as well as many other current EU topics.
- The European Parliament’s audiovisual service EuroparlTV covers parliamentary sessions, committee meetings and press briefings live, and offers rights free recordings and background videos as well. Especially committee sessions may be interesting once a topic of interest heats up, because this is where thematic debates come to a head.
- Of course, the European Council has a live streaming service, too, where press conferences or public Council sessions can be watched. It also has a database of ready-made videos and photos to go with the live coverage, which are available for re-use by media.
All the materials are available in professional standards and free of charge for broadcasters, news agencies, written press, educational purposes, and anyone wishing to spread information on the activities of the European Union.
The EU Institutions also offer production support to audiovisual media, namely TV and radio studios, editing facilities, online streaming connections, various tools, and camera crews, so that broadcasters and journalists do not need to set up their own costly infrastructure for occasional reporting from Brussels and Strasbourg.
Naturally, the institutions proffer their press releases online as well. The permanently updated EU Newsroom is the ultimate source of official information of the European Union across all institutions and bodies. It is complemented by
- The European Commission’s news and speeches as well as its searchable Press Releases Database;
- The European Parliament’s newsroom; and
- The Council’s press releases and statements.
In most cases, it is possible to subscribe to all news releases, or to specific themes and subject areas, by email and RSS.
The EU’s statistics office, Eurostat, offers extensive quantitative information on all aspects of the European Union and its policies.
EU media contacts
Before launching into EU reporting, it is helpful to be aware of the ground rules that apply. “On the record” is straightforward: the speaker may be quoted verbatim and by name. If a conversation or statement is “off the record”, the speaker must not be quoted and cannot be identified as the source of the information. In such cases, it is customary to say something like “EU sources indicated…” or “sources familiar with the topic said…”. And finally, there are “background” conversations, which are not quotable nor attributable and serve only the journalist’s general understanding of a matter and its developments.
Accordingly, it is essential to be aware which briefings, statements, interviews, or conversations are on or off the record, or on background. When in doubt, it is advisable to ask expressly, because otherwise both the journalist and the source may face severe trouble.
All EU institutions have press officers whose job it is to answer journalists’ questions; however, it is sometimes difficult to get their attention, especially for smaller and non-EU news organisations. For the European Commission, contact information can be found on the website of the Spokesperson’s Service. Generally speaking, the spokespeople are the only officials apart from Commissioners and Directors-General in the Commission who are allowed to speak on the record on behalf of the institution. Civil servants working in the Commission’s Directorates-General (DGs) are not supposed to speak to the media. Nevertheless, once a working relationship has been established with an official, they can usually be quoted “off the record”, and can in any case give valuable background information.
The Council press officers do not give any regular briefings and they do not speak on the record – with the notable exception of the Spokesperson of the Secretary General of the Council. The press officers are, however, very knowledgeable about the particular subject they follow and can give valuable background and technical information.
Nevertheless, since the national governments which make up the Council all have their own interdepartmental press offices which are well in tune with journalists from their national press, they tend to be the main source of information. The view they give is often from a national perspective, but by talking to press officers and journalists from other member countries it is possible to get an idea of what is really going on. Spokespeople from the country holding the rotating presidency of the EU will also generally speak on the record about their plans and results in the Council during their six months’ term in office.
The European Parliament is the most open and accessible of the EU’s main institutions. All its meetings are held in public, and members, the MEPs, are usually eager to speak on the record to reporters, as it provides them with valuable exposure among their electorates. Journalists often forget that MEPs are their own best spokespeople. Some are highly knowledgeable, most are able to speak in sound bites, and all are eager to be quoted on the record. However, if you cannot get a response from a politician, try one of the Parliament’s press officers. They are an excellent source to explain the details of legislation being discussed or its background. Often, the MEP’s assistants can provide useful background material and information, too. Other avenues to information are the EP Committee’s Press officers, and the press officers of the main political groups.
The EU Whoiswho has a directory of all of the Institutions’ personnel, which can be navigated by name or organisational entity. Especially the latter function can be quite useful to get a head start on cutting through the abundance of departments, bodies, agencies, etc., of the European Union.
Visiting journalists with national accreditation can attend EU press events by contacting the press room team by e-mail at least 24 hours in advance. Special accreditation is usually needed for specific events (such as major press conferences with increased security measures or European Councils) for security reasons.
Permanent accreditation to the European Commission entitles journalists, TV crews and photographers to an entry card which is also recognised by the Council and the European Parliament. It also makes accreditation to EU special events, e.g. summits, easier and quicker. Permanent accreditation requires proof of professional status as well as proof that the journalist has his/her main or secondary residence in or near Brussels.
The Commission’s midday briefing
The European Commission hosts the midday briefing for accredited members of the Brussels’ press corps. The midday briefing usually sees Commission spokespeople presenting the latest proposals or decisions adopted by the Commission and then fielding questions on them. Commissioners themselves will make an appearance when they have a major proposal to announce. The event is always streamed live.
The briefing provides an overview of the day’s press releases in summary. The midday briefing is also an excellent way of meeting journalists from other countries. Creating a network of well-informed colleagues gives everybody a more rounded view on a particular subject and the benefit of knowing what the story is in other EU countries.
Making sense of the European Union and its policies, the interdependencies between the EU and its Member States, the main positions in current policy debates, and in particular long-term developments is difficult, in particular when relying on official documents only.
However, there are plenty of so-called Think Tanks – research institutes and advocacy groups that analyse the EU’s policies and express their own interpretation of them, mostly including advice and commentary. While some EU think tanks are effectively neutral, others argue from the perspective of specific vested interests. So like with most other EU sources, it is usually unwise just to rely on one of them and take their word at face value.
The most useful entry point for information provided by EU think tanks is the Council Library’s Think Tank Review. Every month, the library publishes a thematically differentiated overview of the latest papers with a short summary and link to the original source. Perusing this digest and following up on the recommended publications often proves to be the fast track to understanding the European Union in depth and without too much jargon.
Think tank experts are also great interview partners in order to get a knowledgeable outside point of view, mostly on the record, but sometimes also off the record or on background.
Lobbies are organisations that represent the various industry sectors or other special interests vis-à-vis the European Union. Literally every business and policy sector has a lobby in Brussels.
In many cases, such lobbies are EU-level groups of national associations in the same sector. For instance, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has members such as the German consumer’s rights federation and the French organisation that performs quality tests of consumer products. The European Trade Union Confederation bundles the interests of national trade union associations. The same goes for highly specialised business areas such as the EU Vegetable Oil and Oatmeal Industry, the European Banking Federation, and many more.
Other lobby organisations are comprised of direct members across the EU. For instance, the Association of Commercial Television in Europe represents media companies in EU Member States and beyond, such as Sanoma in Finland, or Canal+ Group in France. The European Foundation Centre is composed of individual foundations in and around the EU. European Digital Rights is the Brussels arm of national organisations focusing on data privacy, freedom of expression, and copyright issues. And so on.
While lobbies obviously represent vested interests and therefore are biased by definition, their experts are nevertheless valuable and highly specialised information sources for journalists – as long as their statements are taken with a grain of salt and double-checked with other sources. Lobby spokespersons usually go on the record with their remarks, but may also share background information.
The EU’s Transparency Register provides a very useful comprehensive and easily searchable directory of lobbies and other advocacy groups. All registered groups state their goals, list their members or clients, inform about their budget, and provide contact information.
Follow the money: Finding funding opportunities and recipients of EU financial support
Many European Union policies are implemented with the help of third parties. This falls into two main categories: grants, which are non-repayable subsidies given mostly to not-for-profit organisations, and tenders, where the EU buys goods or services at market prices.
Such funding provides business opportunities to companies in Europe and the world, and allows non-governmental organisations of all stripes to work towards their objectives in accord with the EU. Accordingly, the EU’s projects in a country or thematic sector reflect its current priorities and activities, and reveal the amounts given to, as well as the names and contact details of, partners and contractors the EU chooses to work with.
Information is available in multiple places. The website of every EU Institution, Directorate-General, agency, or Delegation has a section on grants and tenders, usually accompanied by an archive of past calls. Similarly, the websites of all Delegations have a section on current and recently finished projects in the respective country.
The most comprehensive online source is Tenders Electronic Daily (TED), a huge central database of public procurement activities in the European Union and its Member States, containing pre-announcements, calls for tender (frequently including detailed terms of reference), and in many cases also award notices indicating who eventually won the contract.
Pro tip: TED is so sprawling and complex that it is, in fact, rather difficult to use and needs a lot of practice; however, it allows users to configure highly specific searches and to subscribe to related email and RSS updates. Once properly set up, this functionality allows anybody easily to keep an eye on everything that goes on in their area of interest. In addition, the eTendering section of TED lets users specifically filter EU procurements by department, date, and other criteria.
EuropeAid, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, which, inter alia, deals with most funding opportunities related to the European Neighbourhood Policy, has its own searchable database for calls for proposals and calls for tender, where it is possible to filter, among other criteria, by country or region.
The EU’s Financial Transparency System is a key resource to identify the recipients of EU money in the recent past (from 2007 onwards), complete with amounts, the relevant EU programme, the responsible EU department, and the opportunity to ask for additional details.
And last, but not least, there is the European Union Open Data Portal, a repository of machine readable and exportable statistical and other information related to the EU’s policies and activity areas. Using the portal requires a bit of expertise, but then it allows anybody freely to download, sort, sift through, visualise, and process the available information. For example, both the abovementioned Transparency Register and TED are available for download.
Specialised EU media
There are a few media outlets which specialise in the European Union at a supranational level. However, they effectively address only the “Brussels bubble” of EU officials, Members of the European Parliament, lobbyists, think tanks, political observers, and PR companies. Since they are often even more into insider jargon than the official institutions, it may be hard to follow them. Still, they are a great indicator of current hot topics, controversial debates, and political scandals.
The most important EU media are:
The information and views set out in this text are those of the OPEN Media Hub authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.