|Author (Person)||Harding, Gareth|
|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||Vol.10, No.37, 28.10.04|
"HOW do we turn Frankenstein's monster into Ursula Andress?" asked the Commission's incoming communications chief Margot Wallström at a recent meeting of Europe ministers in Amsterdam.
For once, the outgoing environment commissioner was not talking about genetically modified organisms or gender-bending chemicals, but about ways of making the EU better loved by its 450 million citizens.
It is doubtful whether the Union will ever be as lusted after as the James Bond starlet Wallström referred to in her speech, but if - at the end of José Manuel Barroso's five-year term of office - Europeans regard the institution as a little less like Frankenstein's creation the president-designate will be able to declare "mission accomplished".
One thing is certain: ignorance of, contempt for and suspicion towards 'Brussels' cannot get much worse than it is now.
In June's European Parliament elections, turnout fell to an all-time low and those who did bother to cast their ballots voted in record numbers for Eurosceptic parties.
The EU's two biggest political projects, the constitution and Turkish membership of the Union, are in danger of being rejected by voters in referenda.
And the number of people who say they are happy with the way the bloc operates has dropped in almost every Europe-wide poll in the last two years.
At the Amsterdam meeting on 'communicating Europe', ministers were shown a series of vox-pop interviews with 'ordinary' Europeans which underlined the yawning gap between EU elites and the people they are supposed to represent. "Europe is like a huge super-tanker passing us by," said one disgruntled interviewee. Others commented: "I don't understand their language...why don't they listen to us more?" and "Europe is like the weather - it may be good or bad but you can't do anything about it."
Those taking part in the Council of Ministers' first entirely open meeting were hardly less critical. "Brussels has become synonymous with bureaucracy in the bad sense," added former European Parliament president Pat Cox, who co-chaired the meeting.
"People say to me 'we want facts, facts, facts, but at the moment we are drowning in propaganda for and against Europe'," said Britain's Minister for Europe Denis MacShane.
The EU currently spends almost €100 million a year on selling Europe to its citizens, yet it is demonstrably failing to get its message across.
This is hardly surprising given the Commission's tendency to confuse genuine information with propaganda and its inability to communicate in everyday language.
It also does not help that its press team is largely made up of civil servants with no background in journalism and scant knowledge of how the media operates.
Past attempts at connecting with the public have been an embarrassment.
In "The Raspberry Ice Cream War - a Comic for Young People on a Peaceful Europe Without Frontiers", our three young heroes get dumped in a menacing land of passports and levies. "We must have gone back in time or something," says Christine.
Max responds: "Yes, it looks like it, doesn't it? Do you remember the history lesson last week?" Paul adds: "Yes, Europe in the dark ages. Frontiers and barriers everywhere and people fighting wars for the stupidest reasons. Kind of weird."
Citizens from the eight former communist countries that joined in May will recognize this sort of brainwashing.
Shortly after the 'velvet revolution' in the Czech Republic, a senior Commission official in Prague explained why there weren't any EU brochures or pamphlets on display in the representation. "Czechs think they are too much like Soviet propaganda," he said.
There have been some improvements in the last decade. The publicity campaign for the launch of the euro in late 2001 was a stroke of genius, somehow bringing Europeans together by emphasizing their diversity. "Imagine what you could buy for €10," it read. "Three pints of Guinness in a central Dublin pub, two shots of vodka in a Helsinki bar, four glasses of ouzo in a Greek taverna" and so on.
The Netherlands' presidency has also made a brave attempt to popularize the EU by sponsoring a provocative exhibition on the 'image of Europe' in a multi-coloured circus tent on Brussels' Schuman roundabout. "We have to find a way of talking about Europe that appeals to those who watch 'Big Brother'," said renowned architect and display designer Rem Koolhaas, referring to the hit reality-television show. Several weeks later, Dutch Europe Minister Atzo Nicolaï announced that the presidency planned to hold a continent-wide TV debate on Europe in December, produced by Endemol, the makers of Big Brother.
"Only connect," wrote English novelist E.M Forster in Howards End. The beauty of the single currency campaign ('The euro - our money') is that it did just that. All too often, however, the EU's attempts at connecting with the public have failed, and failed miserably.
To turn this around, the Commission needs to employ more media professionals, provide objective 'warts and all' information instead of triumphalist propaganda, focus on television - where most people get their information about Europe - rather than the written press, employ a proof-reader to rid all EU texts of unintelligible jargon and devolve more outreach efforts to Commission offices in the national capitals.
So far, Barroso has made all the right noises in the communications field. Having an articulate president capable of speaking four European languages fluently certainly helps.
Like Wallström, the former Portuguese premier also understands that the battle for the hearts and minds of Europe's citizens will not be won by making stirring references to Europe's warring past or shining future, but by demonstrating how the EU delivers cheaper cars, safer food, cleaner air, easier travel and so on.
Appointing Wallström, a telegenic former TV executive, as vice-president in charge of communications was another inspired move of Barroso's.
"Spin is not the way to improve the European Commission's lacklustre public image," she said earlier this month.
"We have to reach out to our citizens and listen to them more than we do now. We have to explain more effectively the Commission's work and how it changes the everyday lives of people. And we must do this, not in some abstract Euro-speak, but in a clear language, one people understand."
Some journalists have George Orwell's six golden writing rules - "Never use a long word where a short one will do..." - tacked to their walls.
All Commission staff should henceforth have Wallström's six rules of communications taped to their computer screens: "Spin less, listen more, reach out to people, explain the effects of policies on everyday lives, use clear language, cut out Euro-speak."
They may not be snappy or sexy, but they surely beat the "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" approach of many Commission officials.
Article discusses the attempts of the incoming Barroso Commission to improve the image of the European Commission and the European Union in general.
|Subject Categories||Culture, Education and Research, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Europe|