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Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the commonest site for malignancy in Europe. The Commissioner for Health wishes to promote screening for colorectal, breast and cervical cancer in Europe. The aim of this study was to assess public knowledge of CRC in Europe and likely take up of free screening. To this end 20 710 members of the public from 21 European countries were interviewed by means of a regular survey amongst consumers (Omnibus survey) using 13 stem questions. Forty-eight per cent thought the population were at equal risk of CRC, only 57% were aware of age and 54% of family history as risk factors. Although 70% were aware of dietary factors, only 30% knew that lack of exercise might be a risk factor. Only 51% had knowledge of CRC screening but 75% were ‘very’, or ‘quite interested’, in taking up faecal occult blood (FOB) screening if offered free. Barriers to screening were lack of awareness of risk (31%), youth (22%) and an un-anaesthetic test (19%). There was a big cultural difference in willingness of the public to discuss bowel symptoms: there was a major barrier in Finland (91%), Britain (84%), Luxembourg (82%), Poland (81%) and Portugal (80%); less of a barrier in Spain (49%), Italy (44%) and Iceland (39%). In conclusion, the challenge of achieving high compliance for CRC screening must be a major objective amongst EU member states and non-aligned countries of Europe in the next decade, because it is known that the non-compliant group are those at greatest risk of death from CRC. This study has shown that awareness of CRC is low in Europe and that an educational programme will be essential to achieve high compliance for CRC screening as a means of reducing deaths from bowel cancer.