Europe must get on-message

Bulletin article
Gareth Harding
01 February 2002

The EU spends 100 million euro each year on its communications budget, yet is demonstrably failing to 'connect' with Europe's 380 million citizens. Recent polls show that less than half of the EU's voters feel that membership of the 15-state club is a 'good thing',while turnout in European Parliament elections has fallen at every vote since 1979.

Paradoxically, this growing alienation comes at a time when the EU is arguably enjoying some of the biggest policy successes in its 45-year history. The glitch-free launch of the euro, the birth of an EU defence force, the near completion of the single market and decades of some of the world's most progressive environmental law making should have instilled a sense of pride in the Union. But talk to people in the street and there is still an overwhelming perception that 'Brussels' is a big, bureaucratic monster, chomping away at nations' hard-fought sovereignty.

What is going wrong? If the product is so attractive, why are people turning their noses up at it? EU leaders tried to address these questions in the recent Laeken Declaration on the future of Europe. Unfortunately, despite its excellent analysis of the EU's shortcomings, the Laeken Declaration paid scant attention to how the EU should present its policies to the public.

This is unfortunate because at present the Union's communications policy is a shambles. The EU's communications strategy is run by amateurs with no background in journalism or PR. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the EU is failing to get a positive message across.

All too often the European Commission confuses information, which should be objective, with propaganda. The Commission is incapable of communicating in a language that ordinary people understand. The European Parliament has struggled to convey a strong message, hampered by the stranglehold that political groups hold on the information machine. The Council of Ministers faces a problem with the member-states: if there is a policy success, the governments take the credit, if there is a failure they blame the EU. The public, who don't know the difference between the institutions, are the losers.

This system needs a complete overhaul. The Commission has produced a new draft information policy which diagnoses the problem well. It talks of the public's 'nagging mistrust of the institutions' and admits that 'the root cause of this dissatisfaction is the failure to convey what the policies are being pursued for.' But the Commission offers few solutions to these problems.

As a matter of urgency, all three major EU institutions need to work out a joint communications strategy based around the following suggestions. The EU should set up a central information service to co-ordinate all its communication activities. Professionals should be drafted in to run the new body and provide staff with media training.

The Commission and Parliament offices in the member-states should merge, and assume joint responsibility for running information campaigns. The EU institutions should also oversee continent-wide publicity campaigns designed to persuade the public of the benefits of major policies. This strategy worked for the euro; there is no reason why it should not work for other key issues like enlargement.

The EU should increase the size of its information budget, rather than cut it by a quarter over the next five years as the Commission proposes. The EU should place greater emphasis on reaching citizens via television, as this is how most people prefer to get information about European issues. The EU's message should focus on concrete achievements that make a difference to people's lives - such as cheaper cars, safer food, easier travel - rather than homilies about Europe's warring past, or its grand plans for the future.

Finally, the EU must avoid jargon and propaganda at all costs. Instead, the EU institutions should provide objective information using simple language.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was talking to an official in the Commission's office in Prague. I asked him why they didn't display any EU brochures and reports in the hallway. 'Czechs think they are too much like Soviet propaganda,' he said. The EU's attempts at communication have marginally improved over the last decade, but they are still lamentably bad for a body desperately trying to connect with a perplexed public.

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