Niels Jorgen Thøgersen
How long have you been in the House?
For almost thirty two years…
So your entire professional life has been spent working for the EU.
No, I was teaching political science at a Business school in Denmark before. I became head of the Commission’s office in Copenhagen. I started two months after Denmark joined and I was completely alone in the office at first I didn’t get paid for the first four months and also had to buy my own stamps and envelopes— pioneer times!
I stayed in that role for 15 years and came to Brussels in 1988 as a Director in what was then DG X, responsible for the Commission’s Offices in the Member States.
From all these years in the Commission, what are you most proud of?
I am particularly proud of two things, none of which we could have achieved without some great colleagues and teamwork. First, our new Media Monitoring Service (EMM) which makes it possible for all Commission officials to follow the news in more than 600 media in 20 languages, updated every 10 minutes around the
It’s a service we have developed with the fantastic colleagues in the JRC in ISPRA and it’s an extremely powerful tool. I’m sure it’s the world’s best media monitoring system and those to who we have shown it, including the BBC, are hugely impressed.
The other is our service to the citizens, EUROPE DIRECT. Any citizen in any Member State from Malta to Estonia can dial 0800 6 7 8 9 1 0 11 and speak to someone in their own language, for free and ask any question about the EU.
How many people use this service?
We have between 9,000 and 10,000 phone calls and emails a month. That will definitely go up as we’re promoting EUROPE DIRECT heavily and as citizens realise that “the EU is never any further away than the nearest telephone” We’re so proud of it, and I think it‘s the only Commission service which works in 20 languages..
Imagine that President Barroso has decided that he needs a break and puts you in charge of the Commission for a day; what do you change?
I believe that communication needs to be much more recognised in this house, not just by politicians but by everyone. Some may think that DG PRESS alone is responsible for communication, but that’s actually not the main story. Everyone is important. We come into contact with thousands of people outside each day and can influence their views positively, but also negatively, if someone here in the house doesn’t answer a letter, makes a late payment or is not very nice on the telephone or in a meeting. I think we need everyone to feel a much greater responsibility for communication to the outside world.
But people are already doing a million things in their daily jobs, do they have the time to also communicate?
As well as doing their job, I think it is part of everyone’s job to explain what they are doing. The public pays our salaries and for the running of this place and, in my view, everyone has the duty to tell and to be available to the outside public. I know people are very busy and that in some areas we are very understaffed; but, what does it help if the world out there doesn’t know that!
So how can we make the situation change?
Firstly, management throughout the house has to understand the importance of the need to communicate. Secondly, I believe that to communicate should be part of everyone’s training. It doesn’t have to be specialised training, just a module on how to communicate with the outside world.
For you, what was the turning point in the Commission’s communications strategy?
The moment we got really active on the internet. EUROPA was a major qualitative leap forward which made us reach out to many more people. Now, everybody out there who was a little bit interested in Europe knew that they didn’t have to write to some odd place or visit alibrary to get information.
We launched the EUROPA site in 1995 — exactly 10 years ago this month — and at the time we were thrilled when we got 100,000 hits a month. What irritated us was that we were number two in the world while the Playboy website had double the hits we were getting! We quickly beat Playboy and now we’re at billions
of hits a month and EUROPA is the biggest internet server in the world.
We also launched Europe by Satellite in 195 which was also a major step forward. We rented a satellite transponder which meant that all our press conferences, briefings and other press footage could be seen all over Europe, and broadcast free of charge. A journalist in Napoli can follow a press conference as well as if he were in Brussels.
Enough of the positive, what are you least proud of or, with hindsight, what do you most regret?
I regret that we still haven’t managed to communicate the European project in such a way that most — if not all — of our 450 million citizens see it as very important for them and their daily life. The EU has brought and continues to bring so many concrete benefits to each of us. But most people take these benefits for granted and don’t realise that they to a large extent come from the EU. We MUST get that right - and in close cooperation with the governments in the member states. They have the same interest as us in making people understand Europe. But so far they haven’t done much.......
I know that this is what Vice-President Wallström and her colleagues are planning as an essential part of our new communication strategy. And that is great. We have all the modern instruments to back it up.
But this communications strategy is due to be launched in May, after your retirement. Won’t you regret not being there at the great moment?
Everything comes to an end and therefore, positively, it’s great to leave at a time when there is a Vice-President who really is fighting for the ideas which I absolutely believe in. I don’t know what the final strategy will be, but I’m convinced that this will be a major step forward.
I will love to be out there in my active freedom to observe it and see the Commission take a qualitative leap into a much better way of communicating with real political power and support behind it.
What do you plan to do in your retirement?
I will be staying in Brussels, because Brussels is home after 17 years. I will be relaxing, reading, writing family stories, taking time to enjoy life as it comes. I hope to continue to be not only interested in Europe but to fight for Europe. I might have more time to go and dialogue with real people and to maybe send some ideas to good friends… just as long as I’m not responsible for implementing these ideas!
My wife and I also enjoy travelling so right after 1st March I’m off to the Caribbean for a cruise, just to make a total change in speed.
And you are sure you won’t be dropping in on the EUROPA website during this cruise?
I think there’s internet on the boat! But I have promised my people here that I won’t bombard them with emails!