EU communication: what are the biggest challenges and what can the institutions do to address them?


Picture of Ingo Butsch
Ingo Butsch

Founder and Strategic Creative at Menschentum

Imagine if, from here on out, the European Union were to communicate so effectively and so clearly that everyone could immediately understand its actions and intentions. Just picture an EU able to convey its long-term vision in a way that actually inspires people.

This ideal scenario describes why the EU should actively communicate in the first place. It also gives us a lens through which we can examine current communications and how citizens perceive the Union.

At this point it is important to mention that the EU communicates mainly through its behaviour – in other words, by what it does or does not do, and how it does or does not do it. In fact, only a small part of this happens through its active and targeted modes of communication.

In order to be able to communicate at all – whether through language, images or behaviour –perception is key. And this poses quite the challenge for Brussels, especially in the context of subsidiarity. The EU has few points of contact with its citizens and thus hardly any opportunities to connect with them directly.

All too often the EU focuses only on what it does, without explaining why it does it

Rather, the EU is perceived primarily through the news, i.e. indirectly. In recent years, citizens have mostly seen the EU confronted with challenges, such as migration, Brexit, populism, and the ongoing pandemic. Recent perceptions have thus largely been shaped by how the EU responds to crises.

This has not allowed the EU to create a clear and comprehensible picture of itself or its overall goals and intentions.

Despite its numerous social media channels, the EU institutions only reach a tiny portion of its citizens directly – reaching about 2%. The most popular accounts are those of the European Commission.

These channels are largely used to share current events, make announcements and present data. Many posts illustrate the opportunities and benefits enjoyed thanks to the EU. This follows the strategy of ‘do good and talk about it’. However, all too often the EU focuses only on what it does, without explaining why it does it.

The EU must adapt its peace narrative by looking ahead and defining peace not only through the absence of war

Again, we see the lack of an overarching narrative that would make the EU’s actions easier to understand. But narrative is key if the EU is to master its communication challenges. In addition to those points mentioned above – limited direct points of contact and behaviour as the most important communicator – the EU has a few other challenges to tackle.

In politics, virtually everyone is involved in communication. This makes centrally controlled communication unrealistic. What is needed, therefore, is an approach that enables all those involved to communicate in a coherent, convincing and comprehensible manner.

Another challenge is highlighting the value of peace – the EU’s main success and the reason for its existence. This is often taken for granted by younger generations, as they have never known anything other than peace. Oftentimes one only becomes aware of its fundamental importance when it is no longer present.

In other words, the EU must adapt its peace narrative by looking ahead and defining peace not only through the absence of war, but also through the opportunities – the ‘everyday peace’ – that our cohesion and the strength that result from it opens up for all citizens each and everyday.

This self-image provides a starting point for an overarching narrative

With these challenges in mind, how can the EU now move toward the ideal communicative scenario described at the beginning?

The way to achieve this is through a clear self-image – an understanding, shared by all concerned, of why the EU exists (its purpose) and why it acts the way it acts (its mission). Everything the EU needs in order to uncover its purpose and formulate its mission can be seen in its founding history and its core document – the Treaty of Lisbon.

This self-image provides a starting point for an overarching narrative, allowing for inspiring and trust-building communication, across all channels. It gives everyone involved a clear sense of why the EU does what it does and enables them to communicate in a way that puts intentions – not actions – first.

When there is a common understanding of the intention behind everything the EU thinks, says and does, individual measures and instruments (such as the single market) will no longer stand on their own, but rather become recognised as part of a larger, longer-term project. As a result, EU policies will work in a more targeted and effective way. The EU itself will become more tangible and a clearer picture of it can emerge, both externally and internally.

What does the Europe we are working towards look like?

Once this common self-image is created, the EU will need to develop its urgently needed vision, its long-term goal – the ‘European Dream’.

In an ever-changing and increasingly perplexing world, the EU must be able to show where it is heading. What does the Europe we are working towards look like? What Europe do we want to live in? What kind of world do we, as the world’s greatest peace project, want to help shape?

The clearer the EU can communicate how its actions today are linked to the pursuit of this vision, the more it will be perceived as actively shaping the future – and not just reacting to the challenges of today.

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