The EU must cure itself of its fatal addiction to good news, and to spin

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Giles Merritt and Shada Islam warn that the European Commission’s inability to fashion a clear message capable of rallying world support for grim and unpalatable recovery measures risks a spiral of EU disintegration.

The European Commission is addicted to good news, to say nothing of spin, self-indulgent slogans and flashy videos. Sadly, it’s a preference that may prove fatal to the EU in these times of bad news and worse.

In our noisy and competitive dog-eat-dog world, the EU’s ‘faceless bureaucrats’ understandably seek to fight against oblivion. But they shouldn’t confuse spin with authoritative messages.

A slick video featuring European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier this year was a case in point. During a helicopter tour of Greece apparently aimed at the TV news schedules, she spoke of that country as a “shield” against migrants. It was PR gone mad because it is the EU’s lack of a migration policy that is so embarrassing.

More positively, she evidently understood the need to show empathy and compassion when she offered a “heartfelt apology” for failing to help Italy more at the start of the pandemic. And when chairing last week’s COVID-19 vaccine pledging conference, her polished performance appeared to put the EU at the centre of the international effort to defeat the virus.

There is a global leadership vacuum to be filled, and the EU is arguably the only credible candidate

It’s a start, but much more is needed. So far, the European Commission has failed to establish a leadership role, either within the EU or globally.

This is truly unfortunate because there is a global leadership vacuum to be filled, and the EU is arguably the only credible candidate. US President Donald Trump has ruled himself out in too many ways to list, and China’s political system and diplomatic clumsiness make it equally ill-suited to the role.

The EU, on the other hand, has seven decades of increasingly successful multilateral cooperation under its belt. And Europe’s history, standard-setting powers and values – when they are respected at home– are still admired around the world.

The yearning for Great Power status and speaking the ‘language of power’ among EU foreign ministers and at the European External Action Service is self-defeating. Europe is not a superpower or a traditional geopolitical actor. It is much more and much better than that.

Many in Europe still need to liberate themselves from “hatred, agitation, and from contempt against democracy”

Europe’s strength lies in its single market and norm-setting, the so-called ‘Brussels effect’  that partners often complain about – but also recognise and respect.

The EU story of former adversaries coming together remains unique. Human rights defenders, free press fighters and open society advocates across the world look to Europe for support and succour even though – as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier pointed out in his powerful VE Day address – so many in Europe still need to liberate themselves from “hatred, agitation, and from contempt against democracy”.

So why has the EU not only failed to rally crisis-hit governments, connect with citizens or establish a high media profile? There are a number of reasons, some of which are beyond EU control and others that can be laid at Brussels own door.

Only national authorities have the means, and indeed the responsibility, to fight COVID-19. Most people, at home and abroad, understand that. But that’s far from the end of the story.

What’s missing is a clear and simple message that public opinion across Europe, and indeed worldwide, can rally behind

The world is now looking for leadership. Not of the top-down, old-fashioned ‘strong man’ variety which thrives on tantrums, deceit and turmoil.

Europe and the world need leaders who can shape and implement the sort of collective globally-coordinated policies needed to recover from this devastating pandemic.

There’s certainly been no shortage of communications from the Commission. Indeed, there have arguably been too many communication efforts as individual commissioners with their snazzy job titles – not to mention EU ministers and MEPs – have vied for attention, often making contradictory statements.

What’s missing is a clear and simple message that public opinion across Europe, and indeed worldwide, can rally behind: a strong message of global collaboration, the value of multilateralism, and the need to keep markets open and eschew economic nationalism.

And a message that a pandemic followed by a global economic recession can only be met by internationally agreed measures.

Europe can and should step in

So far, counter-productive national measures have been the order of the day. EU governments have abandoned true solidarity and EU commissioners and national ministers make confusing, incoherent references to strategic autonomy, self-reliance, re-shoring global supply chains and the end of globalisation.

The EU has the opportunity to call for an end to geopolitical blame games, lead the search for a vaccine but also become a role model for a rapid and sustainable recovery.

Rebuilding the global economy will be tough, requiring hard choices and unpalatable decisions. With America missing in action and China struggling to rebuild its reputation, Europe can and should step in. Not with slogans, but with bold and innovative ideas as well as new and inclusive conversations.

To do that European politicians will need to come out of their bubbles, their scripted slogans and sound bytes. Neither PR consultancies nor spin doctors can compensate for a vacuum at the top.

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