Students trial ‘positive populism’ in pro-EU messages

An example of WhyEurope's positive populism. [WhyEurope/ Twitter]

A group of students is running a project revolved around positively communicating the EU. Taking on the populists at their own game, the students are creating and spreading simple, cheeky posts and messages on social media, with a pro-European twist. euractiv.com spoke to one of these ‘positive populists’.

When EURACTIV first discovered the WhyEurope Twitter account a few days ago, we were puzzled by the freshness of the pro-European messages, in stark contrast to the EU’s usually boring official communications.

Under the hashtag #cucumberconspiracy, one post debunked the many untruths spread about the EU’s rules on curvy cucumbers.

Another tweet explained the EU’s privacy rules with a photo of what appears to be a young person smoking a joint. This is definitely no official Commission message.

It turned out that this was the initiative of a group of students, two of whom decided nearly half a year ago that their generation needed to become more active in times of rising right-wing populism and nationalist movements.

Now the group consists of six students: Benedikt Erasmus Kau (German), studying in Maastricht, the Netherlands; Hans-Christoph Schlüter (German), studying in Tübingen, Germany; Mirko Moser-Abt (German), studying in Oslo, Norway; Tabea Wich (German), studying in Maastricht; Anne Havenith (Belgian), studying in Aachen, Germany; and Amelie Kircher (German), studying in Freiburg, Germany. The group plans to expand further.

For the time being, the initiative is not supported by any European institution, political party or other organisation, and has not received any donations. But they are considering participating in competitions for European projects.

Positive populism

Benedikt, who was born in Dresden, in eastern Germany, said that the group’s idea was to fight populism using its own weapons.

“We try to break down complex reasons for a united Europe into concrete advantages for the individual in his daily life. We call our approach Positive Populism,” he said. The initiative’s Facebook page explains this in further detail.

The group so far operates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and its website is about to come online.

For Benedikt and project co-founder Hans-Christoph, the Brexit referendum was a wake-up call. “Now is the time,” Benedikt thought on 24 June (the day of the vote). “If it’s not already too late”. But he added that he and his friends were also worried about rising populism in Germany and other countries.

EU under attack

“We definitely see the EU under attack. We do not see it close to collapse – perhaps out of the optimism of the younger generation. But we think that the pro-European voices are just too quiet,” Benedikt said.

He did not appear to blame people who believe in populists.

“Europeans often take the advantages of the EU as a given, as self-evident; they are not used to fighting for peace, prosperity, democracy or freedom, as past generations were. All the talk about ‘European values’ is hard to grasp for the ordinary citizen.

At the same time, people are afraid of current developments and find it easier to just blame foreigners – or eurocrats – for the poverty in the streets. Who can blame them?” he said.

Asked what he thinks about the EU’s stilted communication, Benedikt diplomatically replied: “They are trying to do better and be more active on social media.”

But he said he has never seen ordinary people holding booklets or brochures explaining how the EU works and spelling out the advantages of the Union.

He mentioned the Erasmus programme, saying it was clearly a very popular one, but added that many people were not aware it was an EU initiative.

Benedikt also stressed that his ‘positive populism’ project was not doing marketing for the EU, and that he and his friends actually had concerns and believed that the Union needed to change.

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“I have a lot of criticisms of it, but still, we are trying to advertise this common European approach. I think we should have some form of Union, which should change. We are really not trying to advertise the European Union as such, we are not propaganda for the Union,” he said.

Asked if he planned to continue with communications after he finished his studies, Benedikt said the project was very important for him at the moment, but that after his studies he would probably be doing other things.