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.Jon