What the EU must do to be loved and admired

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

There was a fleeting moment almost fifteen years ago when it seemed that the European Commission was going to take its image problems in hand. “Call me Joe,” said its jovial new president José Manuel Barroso, signalling at his first press conference what many hoped would be a revolution in the way ‘Brussels’ is seen.
Joe gave the job of chief revolutionary to one of the rising stars of his incoming Commission, Sweden’s Margot Wallström. That, too, suggested an imminent upheaval in how the EU communicates. As we know, that was not to be.
Wallström initiated a slew of studies and high-powered working groups, but the portfolio her fellow Commissioners had at first envied turned out to be a poisoned chalice. It wasn’t that anyone deliberately torpedoed her ambitious ideas, merely that they were stifled by the Commission’s own culture.
Most of the Commission’s business is confidential, whether it’s with governments, companies or NGOs. So it’s hard for eurocrats who have many of them trained as lawyers or economists to turn themselves into PRs. Hard, but essential.

How does a bureaucracy turn itself into a persuasive and trustworthy loud-hailer?

The Euroscepticism that increasingly pervades Europe’s politics owes to the EU’s failure to communicate. That wouldn’t matter if being unpopular concerned only the often arcane workings of the EU, but it now threatens the wider cause of European integration.
What’s the answer then ‒ how does a bureaucracy turn itself into a persuasive and trustworthy loud-hailer? It’s actually not that difficult, but the first step, arguably the hardest, is for the Commission to stop doing what it does.
Barroso’s promised communications revolution delivered more but not better information. Each Directorate-General gained its own information unit, and these stepped up the flow of brochures and press releases to their sector, which of course means their own clientele. They also became machines for cranking out career-boosting material for their particular Commissioner.
The far more important task of explaining “what is the EU for?” was sidestepped, and still is. Anyone who receives the specialised outpourings of the various DGs is already well aware of what the EU does. But nine-tenths of the European electorate most certainly don’t know.
The European Parliament’s secretariat is on the right track with its more imaginative approach to information and multi-media. But selling ‘democracy’ is easier than repackaging red tape. So here’s what the Commission should do that would truly rebrand it and help save the European project.

First, stop pumping out ‘good news’. Trumpeting achievements rarely tells much of the problems that were overcome. Strange as it may sound, the EU’s worth is better explained by highlighting difficulties, even when that involves bad news. Where possible, Brussels should name and shame opponents of ‘European’ solutions.

Selling ‘democracy’ is easier than repackaging red tape

Second, tear up all those brochures. They clutter corridors and are almost always a waste of money. And re-think the framework contracts the big consultancies are so fond of and that protect eurocrats from criticism. They create an unhealthy relationship in which consultants pander to ‘the client’ and avoid innovations that risk conflicting with Commission officials’ prejudices.
Third, go out and hire journalists and social media experts as commission officials, not just part-timers. They may make a hash of the Concours but they know what works and what doesn’t, and they’re more likely to defy the hierarchy. They also know there’s no such person as ‘a European’, so effective communication can only be in the different national idioms.
Fourth, on media relations, stop thinking that serving the Brussels-based EU-accredited press corps does the job. Their specialist knowledge is impressive, but they have little influence on public opinion. Aim instead for columnists and commentators, and take regional and local media far more seriously.
Fifth, find a new symbol ‒ the blue flag and Ode to Joy aren’t enough, in contrast to messages, where there are too many. They compete and confuse. What’s needed is something eye-catching and instantly recognisable, comparable to the logos of the Internet giants. Aim above all for children as tomorrow’s voters, and devise ‘European civics’ teaching kits in all the official languages to be distributed to secondary schools. If any member governments block that, name them ‒ that would make a really good story!

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