Lessons from a study of 25,000 'obfuscatory' EU press releases

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt draws on an expert study of the EU’s poor communications to retrace its history of failed reforms and suggest some simple solutions.

Europe’s heterogeneity is both its strength and its weakness. We Europeans would never forego our national identities and cultures, but as our crises deepen, realpolitik is accentuating the need to find common purpose. We know our divisions must be bridged, and that means creating a shared political narrative.

Doing so is made more difficult by the European Union’s inability to communicate in this digital era of social media and instant information. Although glossed over as unimportant when set against achievements like the single market, a common currency and the successful enlargement process, it’s an Achilles’ Heel that can no longer be ignored. With populism rife, the EU urgently needs to connect with Europe’s voters.

Getting the message out is an undying topic inside the Brussels Bubble, with opinions much divided. Defenders of the EU’s information efforts point to the size of the accredited press corps, second only to Washington. Others worry that the outside world’s chief image is of an unelected and interfering EU bureaucracy.

The EU shouldn’t find it so hard to convey the worth of European unity

So how should we evaluate the EU’s information outreach? Christian Rauh, who specialises in EU policy issues and once worked in the European Commission, has analysed 44,978 press releases it issued between 1985 and 2020. He found them technocratic, jargon-ridden and often couched in a style “that obfuscates political action.”

Dr Rauh’s message is that Europe’s continuing drive towards greater integration demands an overhaul of the way Brussels addresses public opinion. “Integration is increasingly politicised in the public sphere,” he says. Adding that “European decision-making has shifted from an insulated elite to mass politics,” his warning to EU officialdom is essentially to forget the technical press and instead focus on the tabloids and TV.

He is not the first to criticise the Commission’s failure to connect. Most incoming Commission presidents have grappled with the problem and sought to reform their porte-paroles. But to little or no avail because an official body whose responsibilities are so strictly bound by confidentiality has great difficulty adapting to megaphone diplomacy.

Yet the EU shouldn’t find it so hard to convey the worth of European unity. Why it hasn’t boils down to three weaknesses, all of them fixable if only the Commission could re-think its prejudices.

A determined reassessment is needed of the way the Commission explains the EU’s activities

The first ‘idée fixe‘ is the focus on good news. Commissioners and senior eurocrats are at pains to tell the world of their accomplishments. That’s not news other than to a specialised audience. To gain the attention of journalists beyond the accredited EU press corps, a story has to be about bad news. Once the public are alerted to whatever ‘spectre’ EU policy is aimed at, then its solution will be more readily appreciated.

The second weakness is Brussels’ misunderstanding of the media. The Commission doesn’t realise that regional newspapers and broadcasters are more influential than national ones, but they obviously don’t have the resources to cover the EU. A radical restructuring of EU-related news releases to ensure a local emphasis whenever possible would pay huge dividends. As a veteran US senator once famously observed, “all politics is local”.

The third problem is internal. Don’t put communications in the hands of EU officials who are probably lawyers or economists by training. Hire journalists or other specialist communicators and give them the authority to deal on a more or less equal footing with the eurocrats whose activities they are promoting. Dr Rauh’s findings that the Commission’s press releases “lack clarity”, no doubt reflects the way officials often override spokespersons’ advice.

These three broad solutions may sound straightforward, but the struggle over EU communications has been lengthy and fruitless. Almost twenty years ago, then Commission president José Manuel Barroso appointed Sweden’s Margot Wallström to be vice-president in charge of modernising the EU’s outreach. Friends of Europe’s involvement included a report called ‘Can EU hear me?’ with some imaginative suggestions, but nothing much came of it.

Since then, Europe has seen the rise of populist political parties tempting voters with facile eurosceptic promises. A determined reassessment is needed of the way the Commission explains the EU’s activities. But inertia and an unwillingness to be more transparent continue to weigh heavily on Europe’s future.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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