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EU: getting Joe Public to care
This speech on stimulating public interest in the EU presidency was given to the European Parliament Communications Seminar on the EU Presidency in Limassol on June 22
When I told my editor that I was going to give a talk on the role of mass media in the EU Presidency and how to stimulate public interest, her immediate response was “it's impossible”.
She followed it up with a somewhat wordier though no less disheartening comment:
“The EU's like Prometheus isn't it, the champion of mankind who steals fire from the heavens only to have his liver eaten every day.”
And in a sense, I see her point.
This grand project, brought to life by real visionaries has brought peace and stability to a blood-crazed continent. And yet, not a day goes by when it doesn't get eaten alive in the press, on some blog, down at the local cafe bar, or in a national parliament.
And if the negative rhetoric, clever distortions and outright attacks don't succeed in pecking away at the brittle EU bone, the whole project still runs the risk of being crushed by the sheer volume of public apathy.
So, we can't really have this discussion without first asking why does the EU seem to get either no press or bad press?
Well, as a typical journalist the first thing I did when asked to make this presentation was talk to other more knowledgeable people on the topic. Should you hear anything insightful today, I can't take the credit.
One point that did keep coming up was how European citizens are always interested in the bottom line. They want to know 'how will this impact on my daily life and more importantly my pocket', and to take it a step further, they want to know, 'when will it affect me?'
I can't speak for the whole Union but certainly in these warmer climes south of Brussels, people care a lot about today and much less about next year or the year after when some law they have heard no prior debate on, had no national politician pontificating on, will come into effect.
And this is where I believe the kind of prior parliamentary scrutiny of EU laws that you get in Finland can help to raise the profile of what's going on in Brussels.
So, while it is true the EU does have a massive impact on people's daily lives, from the much-reported cucumbers to the less-trumpeted yet hugely beneficial roaming charges, the public and by extension the media, or vice-versa, are not that interested because a lot of the laws passed do not come into effect until much later down the line, and are proposed and agreed upon by unrecognisable figures that have little to no relationship with their constituents.
I mean how many Europeans can name three EU Commissioners? Or two or one? Even when a national minister is involved, they are one of 27, and are usually keen on burying any decision or taking full credit for it.
And I realise this might not be the best venue to say this, but I include MEPs in this group. Co-decision has given a huge breath of fresh air and energy to the European Parliament but candidate MEPs still find it extremely hard to run election campaigns on relevant issues that actually resonate with their public? As for outreach, Euro Parl TV is a noble effort that's simply not drawing the numbers.
And however hard-working and creative my friends Tasos and Alexandra at the European Parliament Cyprus Office are, they have a real hard time getting the local media interested.
I'd like to just state at this point, they have yet to try bribery. Just putting it out there.
The disconnect between the public and Brussels is further widened by the abject jargon adopted and convoluted procedures followed.
We're supposed to get excited because in the coming months Cyprus will be hosting a 'gymnich'? (sounds like some kind of garden furniture). As opposed to the more formal FAC (Foreign Affairs Council), not to be confused with the GAC (General Affairs Council), which we get to chair.
Don't get me wrong, there is a strong argument to be made that EU procedures are much more transparent than in many member states. Decisions are instantly accessible online. There is a clear flowchart you can follow to see the compartmentalisation of the process, how a decision is born and what path it follows to reach fruition but it's still extremely complicated to the public.
And we still can't get inside those COREPER doors. While the Commission is reluctant to acknowledge the true extent of Council influence on legal initiatives.
You know, one EU expert recently joked at a seminar here that every time you ask the public a question, you get the wrong answer. Hence, the repeat referenda and Lisbon Treaty.
Ironically, the Lisbon Treaty which was meant to simplify and streamline procedures, in some respects made it even harder to stimulate public interest. It took away 'our' foreign minister and 'our' prime minister or president and replaced them with relative unknowns Ashton and Van Rompuy. It gave us the European Council and the Council of the EU.
Before, when a member state had the rotating presidency, for six months at least, they were recognisable and accountable to their public for decisions taken at an EU level. This is less so now.
In any case, what we do have is a multitude of overlapping and highly complex institutions that we, the press, don't really understand, which are churning out a truckload of decisions that we don't know how to localise in the interests of our audience. And we certainly don't have the resources, particularly at this juncture, to find ways to bring Brussels closer which we should, because it really does have a substantial impact on our lives. When you throw the Presidency in to the mix, it gets a tad more dense, our minds do at least.
Look, on the one hand we welcome efforts by the Commission and Parliament to get press releases out there as fast as possible, with plenty of background etc, but these are burdened by the same issues mentioned earlier, perceived irrelevance to local surroundings and too complex to understand.
Since we're probing, there's a further issue of journalistic ethics. Assuming DG COMM and other EU press officials found a way to really dumb it down, take it to its bottom-most line, while finding and including the local angle for each constituency, the question arises, where do the checks and balances go when the media start taking press releases and slapping them on the page untouched? What happens to the healthy round of investigation and accountability?
Of course, the counter-argument would be, to what degree was it ever there?
Anyhow, those are some of the arguments why I think the EU at times gets the 'no news' treatment.
But, I don't think we can say the EU has suffered from a lack of coverage since the economic and financial crisis arrived.
The ongoing crisis has seen the EU and its institutions discussed and explained by the mainstream media more than ever before. And yes, we're talking 'bad news' here.
On Cyprus television, each Eurogroup meeting or summit session on the crisis is reported with the obligatory background horror music and headline of a “Thriller Encounter” between the heads of state and government or finance ministers, if such a thing is possible.
From a purely PR perspective, the EU has failed abysmally to enhance its image, specifically with regard to its role in crisis management, while the monetary union itself is seen as the cause of the crisis.
Even more ironically, whatever EU leaders finally choose to do to get out of the crisis, will end up making the EU appear even more complicated and difficult to understand to the public.
This brings us to the Cyprus Presidency of the Council of the EU, wow, there's a mouthful.
Cyprus is taking on the EU Presidency just as it has sought an EU bailout.
Cyprus is a small country, so there will be some local interest in the venture. It is not big enough to drive EU policy, or further its own foreign policy agenda, like France, so it has a wonderful opportunity to act as an honest broker.
It will assume the EU Presidency at a time when Europe faces massive problems, rising unemployment, particularly among the young, harsh austerity measures, stifled efforts to stimulate growth, a currency crisis, growing euroscepticism, social upheaval, migration challenges, rising extremism, and a southern neighbourhood effectively in turmoil. A separate chapter is Turkey's EU accession negotiations and of course, the unresolved Cyprus problem, which the government is at pains to stress it won't use as a stick to beat Turkey.
Somewhat confusingly, EU Enlargement Commission Stefan Fule came to see us recently, encouraging us to use the Presidency as a tool to come closer to a peace settlement.
The EU Presidency provides a chance for a member state to shine in the sun for six months. It's a springboard to generate interest but for most people, it's just a roadshow. Officials come to town, hold conferences and leave, while Nicosia is left with resurfaced roads and newly planted flowers lining the streets.
As for the rest of Europe, a successful Presidency rarely gets much coverage outside of the host country. Who in Cyprus knows anything about the Belgian Presidency for example, whose civil servants managed to accomplish without a government?
We only hear about a Presidency when it goes bad. When it's badly organised and inappropriate policy initiatives fall flat in the sand... you know who you are.
So,what are the challenges for this government? One is how to get its message across.
There will be some really important issues on the table, from the economy to climate change and a Common European Asylum System. Most media will probably take a large detour around the Multiannual Financial Framework, it's not very user-friendly.
In Cyprus at least, one of the general problems we have as a public is to associate the lofty ideas discussed and then adopted at a European level with what happens in practice on the ground.
Take the common asylum system for example. In a few days, we'll be leading that effort to get it in the bag by the end of 2012 while just this week Amnesty International released a damning report on our handling of asylum and migration issues.
This highlights the discord between passing laws and implementing them. Just one example, the Cyprus Mail has in the past reported on a situation where a poorly EU national was entitled to health care but could not access it because civil servants sitting in their offices were not fully updated on the EU laws that Cyprus has adopted.
Getting back to the challenge, how will Cyprus deliver its message?
The Cyprus Presidency's motto is a “Better Europe” that is closer to its people.
Just yesterday, my flatmate who moved from Greece to find a job here was told by his boss after two months in the job that the company was downsizing and he would have to leave, immediately. He's 29 and will go back to Greece where many others his age are also unemployed. As they are here, in Spain and elsewhere.
Ultimately, unless small Cyprus and the EU find ways to restore hope and prospects to the people of Europe, especially the younger generations, then there is no point talking about a better Europe.
On a final note, I'd like to talk a bit about globalisation, democracy, the media and the decline in voter turnout rates.
Greece recently had one of the most important elections in its modern history yet voter turnout was relatively low.
As one friend and analyst suggested, this is a phenomenon of globalisation. There is a trend of disconnect between governments and the public because in reality they cannot do that much. The Spanish government cannot make the necessary changes to satisfy the markets and the public knows that the politicians are impotent.
In the UK, whether you vote Labour or Conservatives, the discourse changes but the policies not so much. France's new president can tinker with a few things but not make wholesale changes.
The demotivation to vote is a global challenge which goes beyond the EU, and comes from a lack of accountability of those forces that do change things.
At the same time, to borrow from Houellebecq, we have become increasingly atomised and rely less and less on community connections and local media but instead feed into the internet to read the blogs and news sites, Tweets and Facebook profiles we like.
Journalists are no longer the intermediaries between politicians and the public. The national media belong to big media groups, have their own agendas and commercial interests and are perceived to be in bed with the politicians.
The investigations into the activities of the Rupert Murdoch empire in the UK have revealed an uncomfortable cosiness between politicians and the media, with cringe-worthy text messages exchanged between PM David Cameron and former news boss Rebekah Brooks adding to the unease.
So maybe, any future discussion on this topic should focus less on mass media and more on alternative forms of communication.
And on that note, I'd like to conclude by saying, in the coming months in Cyprus, we will likely hear more about Eurogroup meetings and the economic crisis, about how EU workers are taking our jobs, as Monnet and Schuman turn in their graves, and probably something about Turkey. We will not hear about Cypriots with jobs in European countries, youth exchange programmes, Erasmus students, and the primary school in Paphos with close ties to schools in Sweden and France.
The EU is so very much a part of our daily life, but is at serious risk of being taken for granted.
At this point, you've probably realised what I alluded to at the start of this talk, this is not a eureka moment. I cannot give answers to the crucial question on how to stimulate public interest in an organism as complex as the EU, never mind the Presidency. That would be tantamount to embarking on a quest for the Holy Grail.
I'd like to thank you all for your patience and add a small note that my role is to try to see in the dark, not get stuck on the light.