‘Le Monde’ goes Europe, the UK goes chicken

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

National communication plans on Europe tend to see the EU as a problem, implying that “how to communicate” dominates “what to communicate,” write Judith Merkies and Marcel Canoy of the European Commission. Instead, we’d better accept Europe as a fact of life, they argue.

The following text was submitted by the signatories writing on a personal basis. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.

“The heat is on in the debate on Europe. Across different member states, the intensity and type of manifestations varies substantially. In the UK, MEPs even decided to dress up as chickens. This to protest against the European Parliament ‘disallowing a popular vote’ on the Lisbon Treaty. But could the chickens not be ostriches in disguise? The fear by the media and politicians in several member states to debate anything related to Europe does not do anybody a favour. 

The heat is the result of uneasy feelings on what Europe is, does or should be. It is clear enough that we need Europe. Or is it? If it must be, can Europe be a bit closer, a bit clearer yet a bit more at a distance? 

Ambiguous feelings lead to introspective views on Europe. The world seems to get larger and more complex and so is Europe. The size, speed and complexity of this process collide with the introspection and feed feelings of isolation and estrangement from politics and politicians. 

Not only European politics face public opposition, but politics in general. Eurobarometer polls show a clear trend. The last twenty years are marked by a steady decline in confidence in national politicians and politics. In an area where tabloid headlines such as “Asylum seekers ate my donkey” sell papers, it is hardly surprising to see tepid public reactions to complex questions such as: ‘Should Serbia belong to the EU in the long term?’, or ‘under which human rights conditions should we trade with China?’. 

But meanwhile Europe enters our back yard, even the back door. Free circulation within the Schengen area, cheap mobiles and flights, food safety, and hip operations in France for UK citizens – all of them are concrete benefits of Europe. But the benefits are taken for granted and are not associated with Europe as such. Instead people prefer to identify Europe with follies and abstractions such as overspending bureaucracies (‘I want my money back’), even though there’s hardly concrete evidence to support this. 

Is it justified to conclude that citizens are ignorant and want to remain ignorant? It is a big mistake to preach the importance of Europe from the pulpit. To enhance the democratic legitimisation of Europe, citizens must be actively involved. After all, a Europe for citizens is not cheap talk. Citizens are the ultimate target of whatever Europe stands for. To ensure the effectiveness of policies, Europe and its citizens simply have to find each other and interact. Such interaction is not easy to achieve in times of rising populism and a great appetite for easy media meat. 

The introspective view is understandable but does not bridge the gap. The EU cannot afford to operate at a distance from its citizens. What once started as an idealistic venture to improve the well-being of Europeans, will then threaten to become an abstract construction using jargon that is only accessible to a small elite. 

National communication plans on Europe tend to see Europe as a ‘problem’, implying that ‘how to communicate’ dominates ‘what to communicate’. We’d better accept Europe as a fact of life. It is here to stay, together with national and regional politics. Placing Member States and the European Union as opposing entities is dangerous. Europe may be complex, but do not underestimate the citizens. After all, citizens can cope with complexity, as the climate change debate shows. 

Europe is not a bunny out of the hat only to be shown in times of treaties and elections. Debating Europe should be a continuous process. National choices are relevant for Europe. European choices have an impact on national policies. Now is the time to discuss the coherence between European and national policies, making the question ‘national or European’ less relevant. Some media understand this and have taken a bold step. In France, ‘Le Monde’ has decided to keep the bunny but to discard the hat. It abolished its separate European pages, instead now letting Europe figure in all their pages. And justly so. 

By loosening up on ‘how to communicate’, the ‘what to communicate’ becomes easier. A more relaxed ‘how’ implies a pro-active, participatory but propaganda-free stance. Pro-active, since discussions on Europe tend to be too little, too late. Participatory, since there is no other way to achieve legitimacy. Propaganda-free since it does not make sense to declare the greatness of Europe if people obviously feel different. 

Discussing Europe is not ignoring Europe. A more inspiring example is the ‘back to school’ action of the EU and some of its Member States (Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands), in which EU officials go back to their old school to interact with students. Pro-active, since it looks forward. Participatory since students are actively engaged. Propaganda-free since (provided that they do their job) EU officials not only leave something on Europe behind, but also take value back to Brussels.”

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