Communications and identity: A make-or-break year for the EU

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

A close-up view of a Brexit inspired mural by mysterious British street artist Banksy depicting the European flag in Dover, Britain, 15 February 2019. [Neil Hall/EPA/EFE]

With one of its important members seceding, the EU is navigating dangerous and uncharted waters and will need to take a more proactive approach in terms of communication to ensure that the ship stays on course, writes Anthony Spota.

Anthony Spota is a Brussels-based communications consultant and MBA. He has a background in political science and experience working for professional services firms and in international organisations.

Only three generations after the Second World War, identity politics and the “us versus them” mentality has returned in new ways. In the EU new challenges have surfaced which have more to do with emotions than numbers. When it comes to addressing these concerns through strategic communication, the EU has clearly underperformed.

Moreover, the habit of Europeans to stereotype about each other and the lack of investment towards strengthening a common EU identity are worsening the situation.

As the memory of the war fades, this will increasingly translate into economic questions such as “why should we finance them” from one side and “they are keeping us down” from the other.

With one of its important members seceding, the EU is navigating in dangerous and uncharted waters and will need to take a more proactive approach this year to ensure that the ship stays on course.

With market leaders like Facebook refusing to implement fact-checking measures on sponsored political content, one can conclude that the current communications landscape will not significantly change any time soon.

Populists have taken advantage of this in the last years, capitalizing on the spreading of quick, memorable and often false information. Notwithstanding a promise to increase the volume and quality of communication with its citizens following the rejection of the EU constitution in 2004, little has been done to fundamentally change the organizational setup.

At the national level, the task continues to be entrusted with the local EU representation offices, which are meant to “connect with national authorities, maintain media relations and communicate to various audiences”.

In an era of data-driven communications, whereby multinationals are responding to sentiment analysis and online feedback in almost real-time, this model of interacting with the constituencies has become outdated, to say the least.

These communication shortcomings can be seen in a string of recent setbacks, including President Junker’s admitted failure to intervene in the Brexit campaign to help “destroy the lies”.

By worrying about the consequences of being seen as partial or even “imperialistic”, the Commission failed to protect its British citizens participating in the referendum who wanted to remain. Similar passive attitudes are resurfacing with a lack of a proper response to Johnson’s message of “getting Brexit done”.

His successful strategy so far has been to impose unrealistic time constraints geared at showing foreign investors his country’s ability to achieve results, whilst banking on the fact that the “bureaucratic EU” will blink first when driving towards an economic cliff.

Unfortunately, when it comes to responding to President Trump, who continues to openly criticize and undermine the EU, the responses by the European institutions and political leaders have been even tamer.

Although most leaders dislike Trump and mock him behind closed doors, they remain worried about the massive economic, military and political dependence their own countries still have on the US. For this reason, EU leaders’ strategy has been to “put their heads in the sand and wait for the storm to pass”.

Regardless of who wins in November, the idea that the transatlantic relationship will be the same as before and that not responding will have no consequences would be a mistake.

Fortunately, today’s communications landscape offers many easily accessible opportunities for those bold enough to use them. Whilst vetted institutional communications will remain, the EU leaders should take a more proactive stance in countering the populist’s messages through concise communications on social media.

With over 425,000 followers on Twitter, the European Parliament’s liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt is certainly a good example. Whether it be his comments that “The biggest waste of EU resources is Nigel Farage’s salary” or his invitation last year to Matteo Salvini to have a debate prior to the elections of the EU Parliament (that remained unanswered) Verhofstadt has been a voice shouting back in the language of the 21st century.

When it comes to Brexit, it will be important to demonstrate to populists throughout the continent why choosing to leave was harmful for the UK. In 2019 business continuity was placed ahead of long-term EU interests, perhaps because many still didn’t believe the UK would eventually leave.

In 2020 the UK has clearly become an adversary to Union, both from an economic and political perspective. For this reason, more should be done to highlight the negative consequences of Brexit on the UK, including that businesses have already begun relocating operations elsewhere.

So far this year has started on some positive notes regarding the “EU first” message, including European Commission President von der Leyen’s subtly acknowledging at LSE that a “tradeoff” situation is inherent in the future Brexit negotiations.

Similarly, Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, recently highlighted that the future collaboration with the UK could of course “never match the benefits of EU membership”.

When it comes to President Trump, whose repertoire includes telling Italy to “get rid of the EU burden” and saying that he would offer the UK a deal that would be “more lucrative than any that could be made with the EU”, there should also be a more combative communications approach.

Whilst the EU should avoid “twitter shouting matches” and remain diplomatic, there should be stronger responses to his tirades, demonstrating to observers that the EU is firm in its convictions.

This includes highlighting the humanistic and multilateral part of the project, whose values can be appreciated internationally, including amongst a significant part of the US electorate.

Whilst all the above-mentioned EU issues are complex, one unifying element is their link to a dynamic which receives less media attention, that of stereotyping about nationalities.

It is important in this regard to remember that concepts like “nation”, “culture” and even “race” are human-made notions whose meanings have shifted over time. Needless to say, this does not imply that they don’t continue to have a major impact in today’s world.

Another characteristic common in our mental mapping, and by no means something to be proud of, is our tendency to “generalize” in order to make complex situations easier to understand.

In the current “politically correct” environment, generalizing negatively about races, minorities and religions is off-limits, whilst generalizing about nationalities is often accepted, particularly if it’s not done in an overtly malicious way.

For example, stating that country X’s nationals are very “efficient and precise” and country Y’s are “more laid back”. Whether there is any truth in these generalizations is irrelevant, as they take away from an individual’s ability to be judged without prejudice.

At the same time as promoting policies that combat other forms of discrimination, the EU should contrast more vigorously these types of nationalistic generalizations. Should it remain unchecked, this line of reasoning could spell disaster for the European project when more politicians are elected that argue “we would be better off alone”.

From Paris to Budapest to Rome, the populists continue to play to the strong return of national identity with the latest question being “What has the EU done for me lately”? Leaders from all sides of the political spectrum are using the threat of another Brexit to jostle for key EU positions for their countrymen and gain beneficial decisions and investments.

These same politicians will later use these achievements in their campaigning, boasting that “Brussels now respects us”. Whilst this approach is a solution for the EU in the short-term, it is important to remember that the UK voted to leave the Union whilst having one of the most beneficial arrangements granted to any member.

For this reason, the EU should instead invest greatly in building up a common European identity among its citizens. The decision to have a “European way of Life” portfolio can be seen as a step in the right direction because it underscores that a consolidation process needs to occur on EU identity.

Furthermore, even if the new generation has less memory about past wars, it is more connected in terms of technology and travels more. Not taking advantage of these greatly increased connections in terms of revisiting the youth mobility strategy would be a mistake.

Successful programs like Erasmus should receive further financial funding and support. Programs which can directly benefit disenfranchised voters, such as international apprenticeships for “working-class professions” should also be introduced. Finally, more should be done to create cohesiveness through cultural and sporting events.

As cosmopolitan as Europeans are, few football fans would say they do not feel any emotions when their nation plays in the world cup.

For this reason, the EU should promote “European teams” and the presence of the European flag at international events. With all that has been achieved on economic, political and social issues, we are long overdue to have an EU team we can root for.

The European project is by no means perfect nor without blemish, but demonstrating strong leadership and taking decisive actions in these uncertain times is the only option for its long-term survival.

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