Communication: The weak part of European integration

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

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presents the White Paper on the Future of Europe, in March. [European Commission]

The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe is a sad confirmation of the absence of a future vision and leadership, writes Stavros Papagianneas.

Stavros Papagianneas is a senior communications strategist and author of Rebranding Europe.

A report presented by the European Commission earlier this year sets out possible paths for the future of Europe. It offers five scenarios on how the Union could evolve, depending on the choices Europeans will make.

But the reason that the president of the once powerful European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, presents five scenarios instead of a strategy is that he has given up any hope of making any progress.

Thomas Edison once said that our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

But Mr Juncker is not able to take on leadership for a new strategy. Constructive dialogue has collapsed as European decision making descends into terrified paralysis.

Apparently, Brussels cannot find a solution for the deadlock we have been in for many years. Nevertheless, most of the main actual problems such as Brexit, the migrant-crisis, Euroscepticism and collaboration on security issues require a coordinated European answer.

Stagnating European policies are not improving the lives of citizens. In the south of Europe, living conditions are even getting worse. Distrust of citizens in the European institutions keeps increasing and anti-EU parties are supported by Russia and the US.

Europe is missing a real communication strategy. To establish a strong relationship with the people, effective communication practices must be put in place. A powerful connection with the citizens cannot be installed without a well thought out communication strategy and effective communication tools and practices.

In recent years, the EU spent a lot of time and money on communicating with its citizens and explaining its policies and its raison d’être. Nevertheless, communication and information messages were full of jargon and the impact was poor.

Communication has always been the weak part of European integration. It has never been a priority except during the first Barroso Commission (2004-2009). Communication was then a strategic priority of the EU and had a dedicated Commissioner.

Nowadays, the portfolio no longer exists. The EU fails to deliver when it comes to communication at national, regional, European and global level.

However, strategic communication planning is a powerful management activity for identifying issues, setting priorities, defining strategies, and determining performance benchmarks as well as expectations.

In the private sector, the Chief Communication Officer (CCO) sits more and more often at the C-level table when decisions are made.

The EU does not give communication a central role or enough institutional weight. Communication is often an administrative function which implies a low recognition of the discipline.

The function hardly gets the attention it deserves until the moment crisis hits. But undervaluing the importance of powerful communication is a mistake, and it’s costing the EU dearly.

The EU is perceived as boring, bureaucratic and influenced by lobbies, large international companies and banks. Scandals like Dieselgate have undermined its image and reputation.

The employment of former EU Commissioners by big corporations after the end of their mandates and the conflict of interest with their previous positions is also a source of public exasperation.

According to a 2015 report by Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobby Control, Viviane Reding, Neelie Kroes, Charlie McCreevy and others accepted jobs that are linked to big business.

In 2016, it was Barroso’s appointment at New York-based bank Goldman Sachs as non-executive chairman of its international unit that catapulted this habit of EU Commissioners onto the political agenda.

The employment of the former president of the European Commission caused reactions of both disbelief and anger, making his appointment a symbol of excessive corporate influence at the highest levels of the EU.

There is urgent need of a new ambitious project to transform Europe to an authentic, democratic, political, economic and cultural power in the world. A real Union with a real government and real European elections which are not connected to national elections.

If Europe fails to adapt to today’s globalised world, it will collapse and become irrelevant.

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