Europe has been undergoing a process of slow unification for almost seven decades now and is better off for it. There is less conflict between European countries than at any time in history, and their collective power makes Europe strong, even now in the era of the corona virus.
In recent years the EU has spent a lot of time and money communicating with its citizens, explaining its policies and purpose. But this communication has been high on jargon and low on impact. The EU and its member states failed in communicating the constructive advantages of European integration, cohesion and co-operation.
Europe is missing a sustainable communication strategy. Effective communication practices must be put in place to establish a strong relationship with the people,. A powerful connection with the citizens cannot be installed without a well thought out communication strategy and effective tools, practices and analysis. Government policies rarely succeed when communication fails.
There is a necessity for change. The European message needs to be interesting to the media and understandable to citizens. The Parliament, the Commission and the Council often express diverging and even contradictory views, resulting in a cacophony. “Europe can only work if we all work for unity and commonality, and forget the rivalry between competences and institutions. Only then will Europe be more than the sum of its parts,” said Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2016 State of the Union speech.
Nevertheless, there are some successful methods for communicating Europe efficiently like for example, the Citizens Dialogues. These public debates with European Commissioners and other EU decision-makers, such as members of the European Parliament, national, regional and local politicians are very useful.
The events take the form of a question and answer session. Citizens can ask EU politicians questions, make comments and tell them how EU policies affect them. They can also share their ideas on the future of Europe. Held in cities across the EU, the sessions are free to attend and many of those are broadcast live online.
A successful campaign that I also like is the investEU campaign, telling the stories behind EU support: projects that got off the ground, new jobs, modern schools and universities, efficient transport infrastructure, greener energy and innovation everywhere in Europe.
A tremendous chance to communicate the European project accurately is the Conference on the Future of Europe. Although I am sceptical about the final composition and the methodology of working, I believe it will offer the possibility to put the future of the EU at the heart of the European debate. If managed well, it could revitalise the European idea. The Conference is a great project for recognising and respecting the different national dimensions. It will be a process of discussion, citizen interaction and should lead to the formulation of new ideas.
The EU member states have different public opinions depending on their historical, political, socio-economic and media context. The Conference will help determine why a large part of the Europeans does not endorse the Union.
It will launch a discussion on what is a European identity and what our values are. We should use the process and the outcomes to communicate a message of unification coherently by considering the diversity of audiences and countries.
The Conference on the Future of Europe could be an excellent example of Going Local. Empowering the citizens and engaging with them, supporting the development of a European public sphere, setting-up a two-way dialogue, listening to the people and being transparent. The outcomes of this democratic process should not be neglected but respected and analysed.
While the European Parliament was the first EU institution to publish a document on the Conference, the original idea came from President Macron. Nowadays, everybody wants to be involved, and so the discussion is currently focused on format rather than content. Debate on the future of Europe is not new. Last time it was in 2017.
The European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe was a desolate confirmation of the absence of a future vision and leadership. Brussels cannot find a solution for the deadlock we have been in for many years. Nevertheless, most of the main problems such as the migrant-crisis, Euroscepticism, cooperation on security issues, and the coronavirus pandemic require a coordinated European answer.
The Conference will focus on involving civil society in large debates about the future of Europe and provide sustainable solutions on how the Union can respond to peoples' needs. It should identify what the EU does well and what new measures it needs to do better, to increase its capacity to act and to make it more democratic.
It should provide more insights in fields concerning the transparency of the works of the Council of the EU; push forwards the system of pan-European lists for the next European elections and bring the approach of Spitzenkandidaten back to life.
The Conference should be a helpful step in the direction of structuring a European public sphere. Such a sphere is hardly needed for the further unification of the continent. For the moment, Europe is not yet one nation and, the EU is not yet a federal state. It is a kind of confederation.
The absence of a genuine common European sphere is a huge obstacle for integration and cohesion. At the EU level, the identity component common in most European countries is fragile. If EU countries need an institutional setting to manage their interdependence while forgetting to build common demos, infusing democracy into the system might be ineffective.
The absence of a European public opinion, related to the incompleteness of a European identity and the ever constant enlargement of the EU to new national public spheres, makes a common future and communication even more complicated. Communication implies the existence of a community.
Despite improvements, the EU has often been unable to send clear and understandable messages to its citizens, focusing too much on who they are rather than what they do. All too often, they hide behind the complexities of policy-making or platitudes and fail to show why the EU matters and makes people's lives better.
Here are seven recommendations to help productively communicating Europe during and after the Conference:
1. Make communication a strategic priority. A Brussels correspondent indicated in the survey described in my book Rebranding Europe (2017), the Leave Brexit campaign as the most successful one in the EU. During the first Barroso Commission, communication was an EU strategic priority and had a dedicated Commissioner. Nowadays, that portfolio does not exist anymore. In the private sector, the Chief Communication Officer seats more and more at the C-level table when business decisions are made. The role of communication managers is to explain the political, economical, societal and technological change. To explain what are the implications of these changes to the lives of the people. We have also examples of how it could work in the public sector: in the US, Donald Trump-Steve Bannon and the UK, Boris Johnson-Dominic Cummings, during the last years. The EU should make communication one of its top priorities. Strategic communication planning is a powerful management activity for identifying issues, setting priorities, defining strategies, and determining performance benchmarks and expectations.
2. Communicate at both EU and national levels. Communicating in a true partnership is paramount. It needs to be based on shared values, political will, transparency and honesty. The key players should operate on an equal footing. An innovative and sustainable public-private partnership would help; involving the EU institutions, member states, civil society, the media, political parties, academia and the private sector. They would commit to presenting the EU as a good brand, an entity that is seeking to collaborate with the citizens and make a meaningful difference in their daily lives. The message should be adapted to the local identity of each country.
3. Forget the fluff. Good communication is like good journalism: it creates transparency by making important things clear and relevant to stakeholders. Good communication helps create dialogue and is the basis of beneficial decision-making. It is necessary to make messages coherent, clear, concrete and jargon-free, and connect them to particular human needs and expectations. Speaking with one voice at all levels ‒ EU, local and regional ‒ is fundamental. If you want the attention of the audience the message needs to be precise.
4. Talk about success. We have heard different EU and national leaders expressing criticism about the European project, during the last years. This sounds logical in times of crisis. This tendency is reinforced by the media which covers more negative aspects. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to talk also about good results. And there are plenty in the EU in the fields of education, research, innovation, etc. Messages of success will always be positive irrespective of the communication tools used to transmit them.
5. Support quality journalism, press independence and challenge myths and populism. According to the March 2018 Eurobarometer on fake news and online disinformation, 85% of the citizens in the EU perceive fake news as a problem in their country, 83% perceive it as a problem for democracy in general, and 73% are concerned about disinformation online during pre-election periods. The revelation that 50 million people had their Facebook profiles harvested by data firm Cambridge Analytica to target them with political ads is a massive blow to the social network. Fundamental questions arise about Facebook's approach to data protection and disclosure. Can social networks adequately secure our most personal data? And if that data is misused, is our democracy still safe? Do we need voters protection legislation as we have in place for consumers? There is an urgent necessity of a strategy for sustainable and independent media in the whole European continent. The EU and governments of the member states should support quality journalism on the one hand and challenge myths and populism on the other. In our European societies, in which citizens have not many direct experiences with politics, mass media and more and more social media are the most important channels for the creation of a public sphere and a public opinion.
6. Focus on what matters to the people. Traditional branding is based on the idea of what differentiates a company from the competition. A brand grows by promoting itself as different and by isolating itself from others. Apple, for example, took that quite literally with the Think different campaign to great success. However, people are comfortable on the internet with the idea that everything is interconnected. So what distinguishes brands becomes less important than what brings things and people together. It does not really matter if your iPhone can talk to your Tesla, or if you can read articles from different sources in one place, like on Facebook. The brand that screams the loudest no longer receives the most of the attention. It is the one that offers something genuinely useful that does.
7. Communicate more about the EU's role in the world. This is an effective way to involve the citizens of Europe themselves. However, more resources need to be allocated to achieve this. The European institutions should also recognise that there is an external aspect that is very important. It is the role of the Union in the world. Communicating about that aspect will reinforce internal communication, inside the EU, as well. There is a tendency towards myopia in external communication that is not in Europe's own best interests. The EU fails to deliver when it comes to communication at a global level. For example, while the rest of the world was trying to make sense of the euro crisis, the bulk of the EU's communication budget was spent on the member states.
Europe needs to challenge the myths surrounding the block by presenting stories that answer citizens' concerns. The EU needs a real communication revolution if it wants to highlight its achievements and its added value. However, branding, PR or communication cannot work correctly if not backed by real reforms and political will. All communication strategies start with policy; they begin with performance; they start with action. Most of the problems of the EU, including Euroskepticism and populism, can be tackled if the Union itself begins to change, perform better and is seen to be doing so by EU citizens.
Crisis communications, nation branding, public communication, PR: the coronavirus crisis is an example of how not to do it. Governments and institutions need to constantly reinforce public trust and enhance their reputation via their communications on how they are successfully managing the rising complications of this global crisis. There's a lot to learn from crisis communication best practices, but there is also a lot that we can learn from seeing organisations doing it wrong. Analysing their mistakes can help us avoid making similar ones.
The founding fathers of the Union shared the same desire for the pacification of Europe, not via a balance of power, as was the case after the Vienna Congress in 1815, but via the reconciliation and the integration of European nations. They wanted a robust, united and prosperous Europe.
Despite the slow unification process, we experienced the last seven decades in Europe, divisions are widening even more lately because of COVID-19. On the other hand, as long as humanity, as a whole undergoes the same traumatic experiences repeatedly, there will be, gradually, a larger sense of unity. However, this will be a slower process than the rise of nationalism.
The European Union allows us to preserve our welfare-state model of society, our liberal democracies and the diversity of our national cultures. By joining forces and working together we can find workable solutions to many issues. A politically unified Europe is the best remedy against the rise of poverty, alt-right, intolerance and racism.
Even after losing Britain, the EU remains one of the leading players globally despite its very slow decision process. If we want to play an important role and have a kind of influence on the international political agenda and the solution of global problems, we must keep our forces together. Abandoning European unification would be equal to quitting the world stage for good.