The EU fails to communicate - how to make it succeed?


Picture of Stavros Papagianneas
Stavros Papagianneas

Stavros Papagianneas is author of ‘Rebranding Europe. Fundamentals for Leadership Communication’ (ASP, Brussels, 2017)

Despite the European Union ensuring more than 60 years of peace in Europe, the EU struggles to sell its story. Most Europeans see it as boring, and often do not understand what is happening in Brussels.

In recent years the EU has spent a lot of time and money on communicating with its citizens, explaining its policies and its purpose. But this communication has been high on jargon and low on impact.

Many factors contribute to inefficient EU communication: the lack of leadership, the absence of a shared vision and a common European public sphere, poor knowledge of the EU, a hostile media, EU red tape, unethical practices in politics, the ‘blame game’ on European issues, multilingualism, scandals and austerity. All contribute to the EU’s incapability to communicate its policies and achievements in a transparent and clear way.

Today, audiences are central to the success of an organisation or a project. People no longer accept being “talked at”. But EU communication is too often based on one-way information, not genuine dialogue.

Inside the EU, communication itself is often considered as a secondary, administrative task – and is often subjected to administrative procedures. Communication projects are focused on management; they are too self-centred. To be successful, this needs to change: the European message needs to be interesting to the media and understandable to citizens.

Despite the European Union ensuring more than 60 years of peace in Europe, the EU struggles to sell its story

The Parliament, the Commission and the Council often express diverging and even contradictory views, resulting in a cacophony. “Europe can only work if we all work for unity and commonality, and forget the rivalry between competences and institutions. Only then will Europe be more than the sum of its parts,” said Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2016 State of the Union speech.

How can we make the failing communications of the EU succeed? I provide several key recommendations in my recently-published book, Rebranding Europe, that may help the EU find its voice and connect with citizens.

First, communicate Europe at both EU and national levels. Communicating in true partnership is paramount. It needs to be based on common values, political will, transparency and honesty. The key players should operate on an equal footing. An innovative and sustainable public-private partnership would help; involving the EU institutions, member states, civil society, the media, political parties and the private sector. They would commit to presenting the EU as a useful brand, an entity that is seeking to collaborate with the citizens and make a meaningful difference in their daily lives. The message should be adapted to the local identity of each country.

Second, go local. Over-centralisation of the communication process in Brussels is counterproductive. Local and regional authorities should be given more responsibility and be considered as key partners in providing communication aimed at building bridges between the EU and its citizens. Engaging at the grassroots level can help people in different countries to understand that they are not as different from their neighbours as they think. Success can start with a cause that people can support, such as a specific goal that European economic, social, political and cultural cooperation would facilitate.

Third, make things easier for journalists. Quality media and press independence play an important role in communicating Europe. The EU should provide better support for media reporting, as the information distributed to the press is very technical and not always easy to understand. Adapting press releases to the specific contexts of the member states or groups of citizens and creating a helpdesk for journalists seeking background could be solutions. In addition, the EU should encourage, organise and fund specialised training for journalists in all EU countries, since there is an urgent need for training that enables the local press to communicate the relevance of the EU in an understandable manner and explain it in a clear language. Funds from the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the social funds could be used for this purpose.

Taking a more serious approach to the EU communication could stimulate the engagement of citizens and restore public approval

Fourth, make EU communication a strategic priority. Strategic communication planning is a powerful management activity for identifying issues, setting priorities, defining strategies, and determining performance benchmarks as well as expectations. Unfortunately, only the first Commission of José Manuel Barroso, from 2004 to 2009, gave communication priority and a dedicated commissioner.

Fifth, send out a message of unity and recovery: the EU should show that it is coming out of the crisis and focusing on what matters to the people ‒ employment, education, security, and so on. The EU institutions have been too slow to react and not creative enough in their efforts to show local populations why a united Europe is relevant and beneficial.

Last, forget the fluff. Good communication is like good journalism: it creates transparency by making important things clear and relevant to stakeholders. Good communication helps create dialogue and is the basis of beneficial decision-making. It is necessary to make messages coherent, clear, concrete and jargon-free, and to connect them to particular human needs and expectations. Speaking with one voice at all levels ‒ EU, local and regional ‒ is fundamental.

The increase of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties in Europe, populism, Brexit and the antipathy towards institutions and politics in general are all alarm bells that should jolt us into taking immediate action. Brexit alone should have been a huge wake-up call to inspire better communication. If that is not clear to the EU leaders now, they have not understood what is happening and the EU will implode, just like the Soviet Union did.

Nevertheless, Brexit may turn the tide towards a better Europe. History, especially during periods of constant change like the one we are living in, is often shaped by random events. Taking a more serious approach to the EU communication could stimulate the engagement of citizens and restore public approval. There is no time to waste.

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