A traditional and an alternative explanation of why the European Union cannot communicate

People who work in European Union politics in some way often bemoan the EU’s communications problem.

Their classic diagnosis goes something like this:

If only people would search out the facts about the European Union, people would better understand that the European Union does work in their interests, and that it is not some sort of evil construct. To help citizens understand that the European Union is a good thing, the EU institutions need to bring the EU ‘closer’ to its citizens. This should be done by explaining in practical terms what the EU does for people. This, by extension, means the institutions need to invest in communications activities – by providing support for journalists, by live streaming what they do, and by using online communication to reach out to citizens directly. All of this complements the traditional information and documentation centres the EU has been running for decades. There is no European public sphere or demos really, so the best that can be done is to root communication about the European Union in the 28 different national contexts. The remaining pro-Europeans need to band together to defend the European Union against its detractors, and should seek to rebut the myths put about by EU-sceptics. If the European Union is not working correctly it is because its politics is not right – so change the Treaties.

But that doesn’t actually work.

An alternative way of looking at the problem, and the sort of view on this that I take, goes as follows:

Western democracies at all levels have problems at all levels – local, national and European. Trust in politicians is declining, turnout is decreasing, and political parties are hollowing out. The European Union is somewhat to blame for this, but ultimately the European Union – with its part democratic institutions like the European Parliament – is a better bet than going it alone in a globalised market. Understanding the European Union’s problems only makes sense in the context of post democracy. There is a part formed European public sphere – but only for protest against the elites – against ACTA, against TTIP, against fish discards – but as yet no classic public sphere that a mainstream politician or classic media journalist would understand. Transparency, and the sort of institutionalised communications that the EU currently does, are all very well, but are ultimately inadequate if citizens do not have the sense that they have control over their political masters. On some issues – the refugee crisis for example – Europeans are actually more in favour of EU-level solutions than their political leaders are. The formal institutional setup is not actually the problem – the EU has most of the powers that it needs – but actually the issue is the sort of people within the institutions, and the way they behave: a bunch of clapped-out politicians in the Commission, and the loser in the Spitzenkandidat process still ruling the roost in the European Parliament. Those that believe the EU should exist and prosper should not defend it per se (because doing so will mean defending some things that are indefensible), nor sound like a defensive pro-European, but instead should outline their vision for a green EU, a christian democrat EU, a socialist EU.

I’ve written a lot of pieces related to these arguments in the past – have a read of Repeat after me: EU myth rebuttal does not work, From a quick post on “More Europe” to more formed ideas about EU framing, The European Union and truth, Why it’s pointless to describe oneself as a pro-European, and An end to pro-European stodginess for more background.

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  1. Shaun

    Q:EU – democracy? A: a contradiction in terms
    We’re the 5th biggest economy in the world, why on earth should we be dictated to by a shambolic unelected cabal of Brussels based unknowns? Have faith in the UK’s amazing potential and don’t worry about abandoning the EU’s rapidly sinking ship. A simple trade deal is the answer and let the eurozone get on with its chosen destiny.

  2. Peter Johnston

    At a conference on Energy, discussing energy pipelines between countries, the EU representative (Brendan something) explained how they were deliberately constructing the rules so that one country couldn’t drive change. He went into detail about how this would create a system which would be stable, yet in the next breath admitted that the whole market would be different in 5 years time.
    When governments aren’t allowed to make change, what hope for citizens.

  3. Manuel

    @Jon: As Konstantin has made a similar point as I did some time ago, I would like to double down on it. The current political system of the EU implies that for every substantial decision you need not only a majority in the Parliament, but also a qualified majority (or even unanimity) in the Council. Hence, it is almost inavoidable that decisions are taken by a “great coalition” of the two or three biggest European parties (EPP, PES, ALDE) – almost independently of how citizens vote at European elections. Although there are different visions of a “green”, “christian democrat” or “socialist EU”, these visions count very little as long as there is no meaningful interplay between a parliamentary majority and an opposition. The lack of substantial differences between Juncker and Schulz in the election campaign was not only a personality-based coincidence, but a structural consequence of the fact that they knew that after the election, their parties would have to cooperate, simply because the consensus-based political system of the EU doesn’t really allow for an alternative.

    So, while I absolutely agree that conventional “pro-European”, “bringing-the-EU-closer-to-the-citizen” communication doesn’t work, I do think that the formal institutional setup is a problem, because it makes it extremely difficult to have a debate based on party differences on the European level.

  4. Jon

    @Menno – I agree the two things are not mutally exclusive, but they are pretty imbalanced at the moment. The EU institutions only seem to focus on the former, and not on the latter. The former, without an understanding for the latter, is at best vaguely helpful, but at worst a distraction or a problem in that it leads to the accusation that the EU is spending a lot of money on “propaganda”. The way we allow people to have a better understanding of EU politics than US politics is by making EU politics more compelling, not by providing more information about it.

    @Konstantin – not sure I agree. You need to be able to articulate where you want to go, and what you want to do, before you can go there. Instead we always seem to be bemoaning what the EU cannot do, before we articulate where it might want to go. Take the refugee crisis for example – the EU has the means (financial, legal) to solve it if it wants to, but the political will is lacking. It’s not about structures, it’s about the politicians within those structures. The EU is obsessed by structures and formal powers to the detriment of actually using effectively the powers it already has.

  5. Menno Bart

    Hi Jon, thanks for this post.

    I do agree with you on most points, however, for me the two visions that you mention above are not mutually exclusive. The fact that politicians on all level face similar trust issues, and that we should not discuss the merits of an EU per se, but rather the political direction that the union that we have today should take, both don’t take away from the fact that many European citizens simply have no idea how Brussels works. And yes, it is important to have at least some idea of what goes on here. Not on a detailed level, but at least to see that the EU might be slightly different, but not necessarily more or less democratic than other layers of government. Sadly enough, I think people have a better understanding of US politics than EU politics. We should at least try to improve that, don’t you think?

  6. Konstantin

    Hi Jon, it is great that you want to give the discussion another spin, however I cannot completely agree with you on this one. You are right about claiming that the power needed is already at the EU level, however it is so strongly fragmented that decision making on the EU level is essentially hindered. And this is the root of decaying trust in politics. Globalized problems cannot be tackled on a national level, therefore you need to have effectively working EU institutions that are fully accountable to the European people. That is the only way politics can reclaim interpretational authority and therefore trust.
    In focusing on different policies you are trying to do the second step before the first one. Of course it is important to discuss how a green, a social democrat or conservative Europe should look like, but what is it worth if you are in the end not able to implement these policies? Hence, you need the proper working institutions on the EU level first. We have to give the politicians the proper tools to address the problems in a globalized world.
    For me this implies that we have to discuss reforms of the EU institutions at least simultaneously.