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  • Writer's pictureStavros Papagianneas

The Decline of the Brussels Bubble

The lack of a shared vision seems to be more harmful to the European project than is commonly acknowledged. The EU does not rely, as a real state does, on a common language, a pure common history, or real ethnic bonds to ensure its legitimacy and continuity. It is a self-willed community, a cultural union, a project of shared values and objectives.

The European Union is a complex and unique construction with many more institutions, processes, and policy actors than in any other international organisation. Other international and regional organisations, such as the UN and the Council of Europe, do not have such a broad range of responsibilities as the EU. They are essentially intergovernmental in character while the Union has more supranational aspects. That does not make the EU a state, but a highly developed regional organisation and political system.

In recent years, the EU has spent a lot of time and money to communicate with its citizens and explain its policies and its raison d'être. Even so, the information and communication messages were full of jargon, and the impact was poor. In her book The Politics of Everyday Europe, Kathleen McNamara argues that the EU needs greater democratic representation, more citizen participation, and a higher quality of debate. “The EU needs more overt contestation and direct discussion of its policies, and debate over its leaders,” she writes.

Communicating Europe is all about democracy. Transparency is essential to democracy. People need to see how leaders are elected. Despite efforts to improve transparency, the process of selecting the president of the European Commission is still not clear. The Brussels bubble is not very transparent and only a few understand what is going on there – except those inside the two km2 around the Schuman Roundabout. There is an urgent need for more transparency where EU affairs are concerned. Furthermore, EU governments and political leaders should stop the blame game when tough decisions need to be taken.

In spite of the fact that the EU has provided more than 70 years of peace in Europe, the 2015 euro crisis has paradoxically been its biggest media breakthrough. People from all over the world started to follow EU-related news because of the consequences of the euro crisis.

However, good communication works when it is legitimated. This Time It’s Different was the slogan for one of the largest EU campaigns in regard to the May 2014 European elections. Unfortunately, it did not work. The campaign with its overall neutrality and sober image failed to adapt successfully to the social, political, and cultural diversity of the different member states.

Nevertheless, differentiation is the holy grail of marketing. When a successful brand is launched, the first thing to rise is its level of differentiation. Despite the campaign, the votes for Eurosceptic parties increased and the abstention rate was historically high. The restoration of public approval for the EU and boosting engagement of the people are political and communication challenges that should become top priorities. Citizens must be brought closer to the EU.

The turnout in the 2019 EP elections across the whole of the EU was 51%. This was higher than at any election in the last 20 years, although it remained lower than in the earliest elections to the European Parliament between 1979 and 1994. The two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) both suffered losses across the EU and lost their majority.

Ever since the European elections in 2014, populist formations had been increasing the share of power that their masses finally claimed in the May 2019 elections. In the case of France, the rise of the Rassemblement National has even given rise to a new political regime: the Europeanism of Macron vs. the Euroscepticism of Le Pen.

The rise of alt-right populism, in light of examples such as the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the Russian aggression, has become one of the most significant European concerns in the so-called disinformation and fake news era. It is precisely at the European level that populist organisations have best positioned social networks as the centre of their communication and public relations strategy. In fact, in order to stop being a minority and increase their support base, they have become aware of the need to plan transversal organisational communication strategies that are necessarily anchored in social networks.

Just a few days before the European elections, someone can say that fascism is on the rise again, in Europe and around the globe. Halting this wave is fundamental, as our history shows in a clear manner where it ends. The very promise of the European Union, created from the ashes that resulted from the first attempt of fascism, is incorporated in Article 2 of the Treaty of Fundamental Rights: "human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality […], in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail".

However, to stop totalitarianism, we must understand where it comes from, from where it feeds and, that it can only be countered with common European policies of inclusion, solidarity, equality and economic and sustainable development. Responding to the democratic crisis is just as important as tackling the climate emergency and reforming Europe means getting out of the Brussels bubble. Start speaking the language of the street, start understanding the needs of ordinary people who do not know what Brussels is.

Picture Julia Anisenko

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