Too many acronyms, not enough heads: EU’s image problem revisited in Berlin debate


Criticism of Europe has become a recurrent feature in the media with the eurozone debt crisis. But German media received a slap on the back for its quality coverage of EU affairs at a debate in Berlin last Monday (2 December).

The media plays a central role in the perception of Europe, which also explains why they are such an easy scapegoat when it comes to public scepticism towards Brussels.

But German media at least offer high quality coverage on Europe, according to speakers at a panel debate organised as part of the 19th European Evening in Berlin on Monday (2 December). The event was part of an ongoing series initiated by the German Civil Service Federation (dbb) and the Europa-Union Germany, with EURACTIV Germany as a media partner.

Ulrich Köhn, head of the Europe department at the German Federal Press Office, said he saw "no reason for media scolding" in the current disenchantment towards the European Union.

Because of the eurozone debt crisis, the visibility of Europe in the media has never been higher than it is now, he said. And German political media are very diverse, which might explain why the Eurosceptic parties failed to attain the 5% threshold to win representation in the Bundestag at the last election, he claimed.

'No spark' for Europe

Still, Rita Süssmuth, a former President of the German Bundestag, highlighted growing criticism of the EU in the wake of the eurozone debt crisis.

"The way Europe is discussed – in such a technical, complicated and uninteresting manner – there's no spark at all! The more acronyms are used, the more citizens disconnect," Süssmuth claimed.

Thomas Krüger, President of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) said EU political representatives are still too distant and called for the media to focus more on “real’ people who citizens can identify with.

Others were sceptical about relaying positive messages about Europe in the media. Jon Worth, a well-known British Europe-blogger living in Berlin, expressed his frustration over empty messages like "More Europe". At least Commission President José Manuel Barroso has recognised that Europe needs a new narrative, Worth said. But he added that he does not see any clear message in the European Parliament's recent campaign, "Act. React. Impact”.

Christian Wenning, the secretary-general of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), predicted that more people will follow populist anti-European movements at the next European elections if EU political decision-makers do not offer a noticeable presence and problem-solving competence. "We need knights with an 'open vision’ for Europe," he said.

Markus Feldenkirchen from the Berlin office of the German magazine Der Spiegel, listed the deficiencies he believes are to blame for the weak image of the EU and its institutions, citing a lack of public “heads”.

European actors are far too unknown, Feldenkirchen stressed. To make matters worse, the EU uses too many bureaucratic terms and abbreviations that only inspire reluctance and rejection of the system as a whole.

"Journalists should make more of an effort in this regard," he said, calling for a change of perspective. Pro-Europe campaigners need to find a justification beyond the tired argument of preventing future wars. Such arguments may have worked in the past but in present day Europe there would probably not be a war if the EU broke down, he argued.

"Leave the fear argument behind,” Feldenkirchen advised. “Instead choose optimistic narratives like the prospect of economic prosperity."

Communicating with EU citizens has long been a concern of the European institutions.

Falling popular support for the European project was highlighted following the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005, and more recently with rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish.

The rise of populist parties across Europe now makes the matter all the more relevant again ahead of the European elections in May 2014.

>> Read our LinksDossier: European elections 2014: Different this time?

  • 17 March 2014: Next European Evening hosted by dbb, titled “Elect Europe”.

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