Mr Juncker, EU communication is political: worth a VP

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Christophe Leclercq, Founder, EURACTIV

Christophe Leclercq, Founder, EURACTIV [Photo:Lisbon council]

As the new ‘political’ Commission is being debated and adjusted, one should move from policy coordination to external impact. Christophe Leclercq, a longtime observer of EU communication, sees merit in the Commission set-up being confirmed, and also flags a major gap in its potential for reaching out.

Christophe Leclercq is founder of EURACTIV and chairs a media strategy working group of the Association of European Journalists; he writes in personal capacity.

As the new ‘political’ Commission is being debated and adjusted, one should move from policy coordination to external impact. As I write, Commissioners-designate are being ‘grilled’ at the European Parliament, not only for their individual skills, but also for their ability to work in a two-tier group: real portfolios for some, and then seven Vice Presidents, including four ‘policy coordinators’.

This attempt at ‘breaking silos’ may work, but I would argue for more outward orientation. Your challenge, Monsieur le Président, is not just to coordinate a team of 27 Commissioners and the Member States behind them: it is to convince half a billion people that the EU works for them. Communication is a political task: before suggesting an appointment, let’s first examine the policy context and your constraint.

Work-in-process: half of media policy re-organisation sketched

In an earlier opinion piece, I called for separating on the one hand strategy for the media sector, and on the other hand EU communication at large.

You have already achieved the first point, namely some of the change required within the services. Congratulations for organizing the transfer of media network and contracts from the directorate general for communication to the more logical one: in charge of the Digital Agenda and media. There, it will indeed fit better with media policy overall, and with digital innovation funding under ‘Horizon 2020’.

The other part of my July recommendation was to combine in one communication portfolio several aspects belonging together, such as the communication department, the Spokesperson’s service and the translation and interpretation directorates.

Ask Mr Oettinger for a full media sector strategy

As expected, the hearing of Commissioner-designate Oettinger focused on intellectual property, infrastructure investments and data protection. There was not much yet to hear about a strategy for the media sector, although the title of his predecessor Neelie Kroes included this word, and his remit has rather been enlarged. Interestingly, his ‘letter of mission’ includes the wish to help Euronews become more sustainable, diversifying from public funding. Sustainability is a good concept, that could apply to the whole media sector.

Legal and technology considerations are important, but one should also look at the the real challenge: the economics of the sector. Indeed, most previous Commissions (and Parliaments) have triggered at least one major discussion on press freedom (often leading to real efforts) and one on media concentration (often leading to… not much). A good focus would be ‘going local’, the EU communications strategy agreed in principle, that could still be implemented. This is also supported by the Rouillon draft opinion of the Committee of Regions: a reaction will be expected, by yourself and by your communication chief.

This media policy process could be energized by calling a High Level Group on Independent and Sustainable Media, as a working group of the Association of European Journalists advocates. Also, a kick-off for this policy momentum could come from the Parliament. I believe  the legal affairs and culture committees will want to hear Mr Oettinger again on his plans, including some geo-political thinking about the role of the press in a democratic system.

Political leadership resources are under-used

How to interpret your group of Vice Presidents: a Belgian-style ‘kern’ of key ministers, equivalent to a UK-style cabinet with super-ministers, guiding key decision before the whole collège? Or rather a ‘super cabinet’, so just chief advisers, trying to coordinate workings of real ministers?

In any case, two outcomes are likely from the new structure, one positive, the other less so. First, better coordination and better policies are possible. This happens to be in line with the motto of the previous President from Luxemburg: Jacques Santer talked of ‘moins mais mieux’… This time, stronger political leadership, and better cooperation with the Council and Parliament may lead to better results.

On the other hand, the two layers of Commissioners and focus on internal workings is likely to slow down the work of the Commission. Especially in the early days, as turf battles are fought on various prerogatives, and later as initiatives are blocked. During the previous attempt with groups of Commissioners, also under Santer, there were internal fights, but internet and transparency were in their infancy. Nowadays, media and MEPs could tear apart the carefully crafted compromises. 

One good thing about your initial set-up is that a number of senior ‘staff’ Commissioners, close to you, may be re-allocated as needed. I am convinced that refocusing one of them right away, on communication, would best leverage your team.

As you know, there was a Commissioner for communication in the first Barroso Commission, Margot Wallström: she could have succeeded if she had had the President’s trust and also real control of press relations (not just the administrative link). Your appointee in that position would become one of the best known figures: this offsets the risk from him or her of being a potential ‘fuse’ in case of major blunder. Fame has its attractions for any politician, especially given that most of your Vice Presidents come from smaller countries.

As for translators and interpreters, addressing their recent conference #TranslatingEurope Forum I heard their readiness to support communication, the first raison d’être of languages. Mrs Georgieva could have been your spokesperson, but you tasked her with budget and human resources, a huge remit, and then added the vast language troops. Bringing together communication, press relations and language still makes sense.

You appointed Mr Timmermans as your ‘right hand’ and you have Mrs Mogherini as left hand for foreign affairs. Now you need somebody senior enough to ‘hold the loudspeaker’, so to say.

Communication is a political task: one of your Vice Presidents?

Of course, the usual line will be taken: ‘all Commissioners should communicate, and firstly in their own country’. But will they? and who will coordinate this: yourself? your staff?  In my humble opinion, even your bright Chef de Cabinet and your capable spokesperson would overstretch themselves, coordinating both policy agendas and outreach. For the latter, they need daily guidance from a political appointee, and you will simply not have the time to do it yourself. You rightly positioned your Commission as ‘more political’: how could such an important field be left to civil servants alone?

Moving forward, you will certainly make a few adjustments, compromises to show that you listen to the Parliament (and perhaps even the usual sacrifice of one designate?). How about also making a positive move, and designating right away one of your Vice Presidents for communication at large? If Mrs Georgieva is not available, then I do not have a name to offer, but some indications. Having passed the institutional tests of competence and independence, I only suggest three criteria: your trust, performance at hearings, and language skills. The Parliament stands for citizens and would appreciate this outreach effort, at the time of confirming your whole team.

There is little policy controversy to be expected behind such a change, also given that some current ‘portfolios’ are meager. Once a management consultant and then an EU official, I learned that hierarchy layers add value when each level is different from the one below. In the current Commission draft, overlap of responsibilities is wide. Focusing one of your Vice Presidents on communication would be a real value-added.


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