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EU turns to satellite in bid to sell itself

ARE you confused by "Europe"?. Do you feel cut off from Brussels? Would you like to see your MEPs in action, and get to know your European Commissioners? Perhaps you would like to ask them in person what the European revolution is really all about?

If so, perhaps you should tune in to Europe by Satellite. Just buy a dish, and listen to the station's "interactive press conference" on European education, the single currency, or the shape of Euro bananas - coming soon.

Via Eutelstat, the commission's very own satellite receiver (costing 3m ecus - about pounds 2.5m), you could receive "total allowable catches" in full, as they are announced at a press briefing. Or you could sit back and enjoy a "thematic dossier" of European capitals, before an episode of the European Parliament - live from Strasbourg.

Clearly, the ratings for Europe's fledgling satellite TV station are not likely to worry CNN. But the recent launch of Europe by Satellite demonstrates the new efforts under way in Brussels to spread the EU message at a time when public disillusion with the European venture is rising.

This year the commission will spend 50m ecus - more than ever before - on information campaigns, promoting the single currency, the inter-governmental conference on EU reform, and citizens' rights. The drive to spread the message is already bringing controversy. The idea that the commission might bounce its integrationist message direct into British living-rooms would send British Euro-sceptics into paroxysms of fury.

Even within the commission there is uncertainty about how direct a role the institution should play in promoting its causes. It is certainly worth asking whether sending cameras into the Brussels labyrynth might not deepen public confusion, confirm worst fears about the bureaucrats, and alienate people even more. It is only in the past year that the commission, under its new President, Jacques Santer, has woken up to the fact that most Europeans are grossly ignorant about the EU and the way it works. Polls show that ignorance is most profound in Britain, Portugal and Greece.

A survey conducted in 1993 showed that only 36 per cent of Britons knew how many states were in the EU, compared with 77 per cent in France. Three per cent of Britons thought Britain was not in the EU at all and 7per cent said they didn't know.

Educating people about the EU, however, doesn't necessarily bring more support - as the Danish experience shows. The Danes know more about the EU than any other nationality - but it was they who rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. Until Maastricht, the European institutions promoted the cause of European integration with little concern for the reaction of ordinary people. The Danish referendum result - and near-rejection of Maastricht in France - came as a rude shock, and undermined the confidence of federalists.

Now, as the EU prepares to embark on its greatest revolution of all - the single currency - commission policy-makers know they must try to win over the public before the public turns round and says "No". This month the commission will launch its single-currency campaign with an unprecedented two-day conference in Brussels at which politicians and Eurocrats will meet consumer bodies, business groups and media experts to devise a promotion strategy. Advertising companies and lobby groups are queuing up for the single-currency promotion contracts.

On a broader front, the entire Brussels machine is rethinking its "image". With almost paranoid frenzy, officials at DG10, the commission directorate responsible for information, are working overtime on colloquies and seminars, disseminating "vertical information", countering Euro-myths, and churning out gloosy brochures for the European citizen.

To force more of a "European dimension" into the press, a European journalism school has been set up at Maastricht. DG10 offers a range of "tools" and "products" to help the media present European issues. Europe by Satellite offers all its services free - in the hope that TV companies will give "Europe" more air time - and the number of staff involved in information work has topped 600. Even so, media promotion work is contracted out at extra expense.

Meanwhile, the Brussels press corps has reached a record 900 - bulging out of the press briefing room. The commission put out a record 1,500 press releases last year, and in December history was made when the EU issued its first press release in Greek. Despite all this frenetic activity, there is no guarantee that the "image" of Brussels will be improved. The "European dimension" remains as hard to communicate as ever.

"Simplicity," cries Mr Santer, but he knows that his Europe is becoming more complicated. Implicitly conceding defeat, a senior aide of Mr Santer said last week: "What makes the problem more complicated is that we must explain why we have become so complicated." But, the speaker well knows, viewers of Europe by Satellite will turn off if he even tries to explain that.

The prospect of explaining this year's inter-governmental conference (IGC) - billed by politicians as a watershed for European reform - already appears to have defeated the Brussels image-makers. The IGC promotion campaign has been put on the back burner "until we know what to say", as one official put it.

A poll has shown that only 20 per cent of Europeans know what the IGC is.