Interview with Christophe Leclercq, EURACTIV founder & publisher, on EU Communication

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EURACTIV’s publisher Christophe Leclerq see strong decentralisation and fast action as his key recommendations for Commissioner Wallström’s communication strategy, starting with the Commission’s action plan.

1. Why have you chosen to give an interview now, on EU communication? Is EURACTIV no longer neutral? Are you concerned by the recent referenda?

I was given the opportunity. EURACTIV’s Editor-in-chief offered this interview! And yes, we are concerned. I would add ‘nous sommes concernés’, because as a media we are also a stakeholder. EURACTIV’s readership of 250,000 gives me as publisher a share of responsibility. Hence I allow myself to provide my own views, at some length. 

2. EURACTIV aims to be a neutral platform, and in a recent survey answered by 3,000 readers 92% of respondents recognised EURACTIV as ‘independent and fact-based’. ‘Efficacité et transparence des acteurs européens’ is our team’s by-line. We do not write editorials, and as we have done in the past we only take sides on issues concerning efficiency and transparency

I am not only concerned about the Constitution. What I am concerned about is the lack of real action, following strong and repeated signals of discontent from different countries. The ‘non’ and ‘nee’ follow on from the low participation at the 2004 European Parliamentary elections, and several other ‘no’ referenda. This made headlines for a few days, refreshed ideas for a few weeks, and what happened then? Nothing. So, ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option. 

3. Is the current constitutional crisis the result of an EU communication failure?

In both France and the Netherlands, there are many domestic explanations for the referenda results. But the difficulty of EU institutions to communicate is a well known issue. At EU level, it is not just a question of communication but also of democracy, of the perception of values by citizens. Among the four main achievements of the EU in the last two decades, the single market and the euro have been well communicated, mainly because people understand the implications. Enlargement and the Constitution, on the other hand, have lacked sufficient popular support. It relates to the functioning of the whole ‘EU process’, or ‘EU Actors’ as EURACTIV calls them. Initiatives for improved communication and transparency, whilst necessary, must be supported by better EU governance and EU regulation. This is planned but not implemented yet. 

However, this interview focuses only on some communication ideas. Some ideas are not new: for example Friends of Europe and Gallup, together with EURACTIV, prepared the CanEUHearMe report in October 2004. 

4. But, before we talk of practical measures proposed by the Commission, how could Europe be made interesting?

The key is to ‘mainstream’ the EU, to integrate it as part of national processes, to make Europe a domestic matter. Take university curricula: it is good to have Jean Monnet professorships about European topics. But it’s even more important that teachers of marketing talk about the commercial communication directive, or professors of finance about the free circulation of money. 

There are a number of prerequisites in political life for Europe’s integration at national level: 

• First, national parliaments should be involved in EU debates, and that does not require a new Constitution. 

• Secondly, there should be national training programmes on Europe for policy makers. Or forums on EU matters, like the one in Ireland that contributed to the positive referendum vote after a first failed attempt. 

• Finally, I believe that political parties at EU level have a role to play. However, there are different views on this and progress has been very slow so far. 

5. So, is it really political and social life that should change?

To some extent, yes. It is in fact happening already; the effects of the euro are only in their infancy. Take also the student exchange programme Erasmus; this is one of the greatest achievements of the Commission, but it has not yet capitalised on the alumni. 

To become a lively democracy and engage the public, one needs a majority and at least one opposition. To achieve this means accepting controversial debate and different points of view, not only for and against European integration. In this sense at least, the French and Dutch debates were a success. These different points of view exist, but the EU has the image of an inevitability being imposed by establishments. This is why the 26 Parliaments – national and European – have a key role to play, and the UK Presidency is right to relaunch a debate on the EU’s goals, not just its institutions. 

6. Turning to the communication strategy, do you have any initial comments on the ongoing process between EU institutions?

Many experts criticise Margot Wallström for being late with her communication strategy. By the way, all such plans have been late, and there have been many. As she said herself (see EURACTIV interview with Commissioner Wallström), she faces many internal constraints. Personally, I appreciate the need for involvement and consultation on the long term aspects of the strategy and Ms Wallström has done quite a lot of that already. For example, DG Press looked beyond the Brussels press corps and consulted the national editors of electronic media (including TV), which is key. Nevertheless – at least until ‘non’ and ‘nee’ – communication was still too low a priority for the College of Commissioners. 

There should be a white paper by the end of 2005 on the overall communication stategy, including other institutions and stakeholders

I assume this would lead to an agreed strategy before summer 2006. Given the time it will take to get Parliament and Council decisions and then to implement all measures agreed upon, we are talking about initial effects in 2007 and the full impact from 2008. That is already in the run-up to the next EP elections in spring 2009. It is also in 2007 that some experts expect the dust of ‘no’ and ‘nee’ to have settled, with some new national leadership emerging and institutional issues addressed again for good, to be put forward for popular approval two years later. Although the Parliament’s last election strategy has been late and modest, hopefully this time the deadlines that will not be missed. 

Given this institutional background and lengthy processes, the Commission is right to start by putting its own house in order, communication-wise. In my view, it is the Commission internal action plan that is overdue. For example, the draft action plan calls for the creation of 169 new jobs – probably justified but still not budgeted for 2006. I believe this action plan could have been ready six months ago, a few months into the new Commission’s mandate. Let’s hope that time pressure will now lead to quicker decisions. 

7. Now, on a more practical side, what do you think about Wallström’s communication action plan for the Commission?

I have finally got hold of the draft [for interested readers: unfortunately not available on the web until after the Commission’s decision, which DG Press hopes will occur before the summer break]. Overall, I like it and I would support most measures. However, I would sound a few warning notes and also go further on several points. 

Logically, this document mentions three overall goals: listening, explaining and connecting with citizens by ‘going local’. I will not comment on the 126 measures involved, which range from straight use of good management to some innovative ideas for further consideration. 

My first point: I would urge the Commission services to implement the action plan faster than previous ones. Before the impetus sinks in the sands of old habits or turf battles, or before new political events demand the full attention of communicators. 

My second warning: leadership is required, not only from the communication vice president. Some cultural change is required, which can only come from the outside, relayed from the top. In the weeks following the French and Dutch votes, officials at all levels have been disappointed by the lack of reaction from the college (firstly internal) which raises concerns about its collective spirit. One needs to transform setbacks and frustrations into changes and actions. 

My third remark is more on the substance of several proposals: coordinate within the Commission, professionalise indeed, benchmark by all means, but do not attempt to centralise or ‘streamline’.

 Indeed, the proposal to ‘streamline’ is a common thread in some proposed measures: let’s have a ‘single face’, suppress various logos and slogans, assume that DG-specific channels target ‘specialised’ audiences only, and let’s bring specialised websites under the authority of one (DG Press) editor, etc. This may be based on a definition problem: there are not just two audiences, the (wo)man in the street on the one hand and then the lobbyist / Brussels journalists on the other. There is also mass specialised communication

What sounds terribly bureaucratic for one person in a small city may be essential for her very neighbour, who follows just one or two EU issues. The various Directorates Generals run specialised networks, behind which there are professional or social communities, the fabric of our societies. What brings these individuals together primarily is not Europe but their professional or cultural common interest, creating bridges. Just as national ministries have networks and communities of interest throughout their countries, DGs must try to make their policies understood with their counterparts at national and regional level. Certainly, the future DG Communication (and external bodies) should provide clear measures for efficiency and tools, plus an overall strategy. An “EU family look” is required, respecting DG “first names” and motivating the various communication units to work together

Centralisation attempts within the Commission would seem to run counter to decentralisation at national level, the action plan’s best point. This issue of centralisation vs coordination will also arise again between EU institutions – and mmber sates – during the white paper discussion. No doubt, the current inter-service consultation, and then the inter-cabinet discussions, will address these points. Some corrections are required, without taking away from the overall value of the action plan. 

8. Apart from these general remarks, what would your main recommendation be?

Decentralise more radically! A number of changes are required in Brussels, but there is no European public opinion, so it is really at national level that things should happen. Thinking for 25 countries in Brussels cannot work, and the Brussels journalists are rarely the most influential in their own media. Translating information into 20 languages, or often fewer, is not communication, even if it is posted on the Europa website. Of course, EU supporters point to the responsibilities of the member states and the shortcomings of national politicians who blame Brussels for unpopular decisions, feeding a bad image. They are right. 

But EU institutions could also upgrade their own national representations in a major way. Let’s make a comparison. In Washington, the EU is represented by a former prime minister, who is of course taken seriously and invited to speak on TV. By contrast, in most member states the EU is represented by people around the level of a head of unit: no public recognition, and often with little political experience. 

The Commission states that commissioners themselves should play that role in their own country. That is important but not sufficient; it has been tried many times before. They are busy with their Brussels portfolio, and – let’s face it – not all commissioners have been chosen for their media profile and skills. 

Decentralising is not in the institutions’ culture, but the EU is now too large to be handled centrally. After much hesitation, the Commission decentralised some agencies, and also aid programmes, where it seems to start working better. If there is political will, yes, decentralisation of communication can be done. 

9. Any comments on the draft action plan for decentralisation? Firstly regarding resources?

I have three practical suggestions, some of which could be initiated now, for a start under the 2006 budget. First, one needs to prioritise the representations in terms of role and resources. Before enlargement, Central European delegations reporting to DG Enlargement had real clout and media profile. After enlargement, they were transformed into representations reporting to DG Press, whilst some ‘EU embassies’ had their staff drastically reduced often not even keeping the same people. Of course the tasks are different post-enlargement, but I would claim that involving the citizens and policy makers of a member state is more important, not less. It should go well beyond information, and include political consultations. Is it easy for a head of representation to consult a minister, like an ambassador would do abroad? With the present staff and positioning, the answer is No. 

From this perspective, the action plan goes in the right direction, increasing resources for representations

10. What kind of people should go into national representations? Should they be limited to DG Press officials?

Indeed, more is needed than the present type of officials from DG Press and local staff. The draft action plan rightly proposes adding locally-selected communications experts. 

I am also much encouraged by the inclusion of an idea I have suggested before, no doubt not uniquely: secondment of officials from other DGs, or designation of DG consultants, or ‘stages’ [internships] by DG officials in a representation. This measure is detailed as ‘timing to be decided’, and seems optional. Plus I hear already the reluctance of officials based in Brussels with families etc. So let me step back for a moment and explain it in a bit more detail. 

This, in my view, is not just about expertise in the capitals, but also about career management, and about image: a message is better received if the messenger is close, therefore trusted. Rightly or wrongly, Eurocrats – including Commissioners – do not have a good press. The EU institutions cannot be part of domestic politics if their staffs feel like an international organisation, say the UN. 

I believe part of an EU official’s career should be close to local realities, as in many national ministries and most international companies. I think it wrong that one can be hired in Brussels at 25, fresh from university, and become a director at 55, without ever living elsewhere. So, my second proposal is the creation of an ‘incitation de mobilité géographique’, with reduced promotion rights otherwise. 

What is the link with communication? The ‘high flyer’ career could become the following: a few years in a DG, followed by a couple of years détaché in a national civil service, then back to Brussels (for example in a communication unit), then posted as attaché of the original DG in a representation. So an agriculture attaché in Paris, for example, could help understand and inform the paradoxical French farmers, who voted in their majority against the Constitution. Such persons would be credible with the specialized journalists and national stakeholders in their sector, hence bringing EU policies into domestic debate. Only then would attachés with national and EU experience go back and start drafting policies at EU level. They would be even more credible with member states and the media than classical ‘fast-trackers’ with the triple background of national ministry / cabinet / DG hierarchy. 

Mr Kallas, the Vice President of the Commission for anti-fraud and administration, alluded to the fact that, apart from good salaries, any special allowances could be re-considered (see EURACTIV’s interview with Commissioner Kallas). If civil servants want to keep their present expat’ allowances and want to be in tune with Europe, they have to be mobile at least within Europe. Just like they already do – around the world! – in the ‘relex family of DGs’. 

11. What about the leadership of the representations and national level? 

This is indeed the main weakness of the ‘going local’ idea in the action plan: adding resources and offering more customisation of Brussels-originated messages, but with no change to the positioning and leadership. 

Hence, my third proposal is to upgrade representations in a major way, led by policy or communication ‘stars’. Since France is presently a ‘problem country’, let me illustrate with possible leaders for the EU in Paris: Christine Ockrent, former anchorwoman journalist, who tried to set up an EU media; or Bernard Kouchner, initially founder of Médecins san Frontières, then minister, who also administered Kosovo with EU support. TF1, the leading French TV channel, does not even have a correspondent in Brussels, but would of course frequently invite such a famous personality. 

When I mention this idea, people tell me that the Commission may finally open a concours for communication experts, and is already trying to reduce the burden of financial administration required of the representations. I would be more radical. The leaders would not be officials, but hired with clear objectives for, say, 5 years like commissioners or their cabinet members. In order to cut red tape and turf battles, representations would work like autonomous agencies, with a management committee including trusted and knowledgeable personalities and a head hunter to select their Director General.

Some heads of representations have expressed great resentment of the administrative frustrations of the role, which might prove too much for ‘stars’. The previous head of the Commission’s London representation, Jim Dougal, expressed himself on this point in the Financial Times recently. So, some less radical variants are possible: for example, the ‘Can EU Hear Me?’ report suggested ‘goodwill Ambassadors’, as done by the UN. These could work alongside a ‘normal’ head of representation who would deal with administration at large. 

12. Anything else that should change in Brussels?

I will mention only one more point: consider public opinion much earlier in policy development, not only while preparing communication at the end of the process. This is also what EURACTIV emphasises with its ‘policy process arrow’, starting with the box ‘public opinion’ (guided tour of EURACTIV’s website). 

Two practical examples of considering public opinion early: 

Qualitative surveys should systematically precede the classical quantitative surveys. Journalists became cynical about ‘focus groups’, because of their association to ‘spin doctors’. But qualitative data should be essential for the EU, to complement the intuition of local politicians. Eurobarometer alone will not reveal the mental associations between the Constitution and Turkey, or the services directive, which exist for some French but were discovered too late. 

Ms Wallström’s draft action plan mentions ‘qualitative analysis of polls and surveys’. But it sounds like providing one more resource to interpret Eurobarometer, rather than using focus groups to help shape policy proposals, or at least their communication. There is plenty of experience of such modern methods in the UK Presidency, and also in at least one commissioner cabinet: let’s use it. 

Second, EU-funded programmes and projects should include communication plans with national elements. Sending press releases to correspondents, opening a website in English, printing brochures: all these are now standard practice but not sufficient. What is required is linking the project / EU policies / benefits for national citizens in a customised way: adapted content-wise and linguistically. On this, the action plan is ‘spot on’. The challenge is implementation, given the lack of PR experience of many officials and project managers. 

13. Is this all you have to say on EU communication?

No, but this interview is already too long. I could add more, for example on the internet strategy, on the language interface, on what EURACTIV and other media could contribute. Let me stop here, and invite informal comments from readers (not for publication): publisher@euractiv.com

 

Read the shorter version of this interview

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