The weekend of 10 August saw a series of misleading articles* in the UK press alleging – depending on exactly which fanciful article one chose to read – that the European Commission intends to force the UK to introduce EU birth certificates bearing the EU flag, force the removal of the Crown image currently used and/or abolish national certificates altogether.
These assertions are wrong. The Commission proposals to which the articles ostensibly refer – to which the newspapers concerned had access – show in black and white that these reports do not reflect reality.
At the centre of this maelstrom is a Commission proposal on the certification of public documents http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-355_en.htm
The core idea is that member states should recognise each other’s basic documents – like birth and marriage certificates for individuals or legal entities for companies – without the need for special stamps or legalisation. Currently, such a special certification stamp – called an apostille – is needed to prove the authenticity of a document. Legalisation is required to certify that the signatures on it are genuine. The cost of these provisions – dating from an era when countries only trusted public documents when they were certified by another country’s foreign ministry – is estimated at £284 million (€330 million) per year. Much of this cost falls on UK citizens who want to move, work, or buy property or set up businesses elsewhere in the EU.
So the Commission’s proposal looks to abolish unnecessary, outdated and costly red tape. It is ironic therefore that the same newspapers which continuously lambast the EU for allegedly creating red tape seem to find the proposal so offensive.
The main focus in the proposal is on mutual recognition by Member States of existing national documents. Contrary to the claims made in the articles, the additional option of standardised EU forms would be just that: optional.
Those people and businesses who find the EU format would save them time and money would be able to request them. For example, if a British business operates across the EU they may wish to have a standardised form, so as to confirm their legal entity in different countries more easily. The forms would not replace national forms which will continue to exist.
The proposal followed a Green Paper and extensive public consultation running from 2010-11, to which the House of Lords, Law Society, Notaries Society of England & Wales, Family Education Trust and Registers of Scotland, among others, all contributed. The overwhelming response was that standard forms would help people and companies get their documents recognised more easily. In a 2010 Eurobarometer survey , 74% of Brits said they were in favour of standard formats for civil status documents in all EU member states, 77% were in favour of automatic recognition and 81% in favour of better mechanisms for translating them.
Negotiations on the proposals have only just started in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers – where UK MEPs and Cabinet Ministers sit and will have their say in how the final EU legislation will look. The implication in some newspapers that the Lisbon Treaty somehow means that the proposals could be forced on the UK by an arbitrary decision by the Commission is simply false.
Of course, any Commission proposal should be debated, scrutinised and criticised in the media, based on what it actually contains. If UK voices criticise an EU initiative, the media are right to report that, scrutinising with equal rigour both the proposal itself and the criticisms expressed.
However, in this case some newspapers seem to have simply abandoned objectivity and balance in pursuit of a convenient anti-EU story.
They have not given a fair reflection of proposals that have been widely supported in an open consultation and that will ultimately save British people and businesses money. Using a short quote from the Commission at the end of a long article after a lurid headline and a dozen alarmist paragraphs does not constitute balance.
Some media concerned have also – not for the first time – ignored the basic principles of EU decision-making, under which EU laws are not imposed by “Brussels” but are agreed and adopted by the European Parliament and the Member States.
*For example: Anger over plot to put EU flag on birth certificates”, Daily Express, 10 August;“Stamped with the EU flag from cradle to grave”, Daily Mail, 10 August; “B-EU-rths’ and deaths”, The Sun, 10 August, “EU puts its flag on British birth and death certificates”, The Daily Telegraph.