The EU intends to continue a propagandistic communication policy, bombing its citizens with good news. The Juncker Commission even stepped up a gear, as it increasingly uses media, culture and science as instruments of soft power.
“The European Union needs to communicate better about what it does well”. That was former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy’s conclusion after the Brexit and seems to be the dominant analysis in the EU bubble. This week the American-owned communications agency ICF Mostra won another 26 million euro contract to promote the EU’s policies.
But the strategy is contested. “A constant flow of good news has no effect, you should also explain to people what doesn’t work”, states professor Hendrik Vos, head of the centre for EU-studies at the University of Ghent. Welsh-born Gareth Harding, Managing Director of communications company Clear Europe, agrees: “Europe needs to foster debate, give people information so they make up their own mind. Otherwise it’s propaganda, and propaganda doesn’t work.”
The absence of a common media platform for a EU-wide debate, allows politicians as Nigel Farage to profile themselves at the expense of the union, without being challenged for it. But instead of fostering such a debate, the EU chooses to spend its generous communication budgets on semi-propagandistic media, outdated brochures and a series of obscure NGOs and think tanks.
Hearts and mind
In 1989, then Commission President Jacques Delors famously said, “One doesn’t fall in love with a common market”. Europe was about to make the transformation from a purely economic community to the beginning of a real political union. In the following years it would be doted with a single currency
and a common foreign and security policy.
But the European project didn’t manage to sparkle the love Delors was alluding to. Apart from the flag and the anthem, the structure evokes no emotional associations. And the attempts to win the hearts and minds of its citizens, remind too much of indoctrination.
“Europe copies the methods of the 19th century nation states, systematically citing the most glorious episodes from history and concealing the rest”, says professor Vos. Last year, several historians complained about about political interference in the construction of the “House of European history”. The EU stood for freedom and democracy, was the message, and the continent’s conflictive past did not fit. Ultimately, the pressure to start the permanent exposition in 1946 was dismissed after commotion in the media.
Men in suits
But why can the many highly educated and well-paid bureaucrats not manage to boost the EU’s image? “The European Commission is crowding its communications department with men in suits who know little about the job and whose main worry seems to be moving up the Commission’s hierarchy”, says Gareth Harding. “If it were the private sector, they would have got rid of almost the entire communications team.”
But the staff are not the only obstacle for Europe to deliver clear messages. In its communication, the union constantly needs to watch over the balance between the different institutions and the 28 Member States. This resulted in a veiled kind of language that can impossibly compete with the sharp tongues of the likes of Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen.
Juncker takes the lead
In this complex setting, Jean-Claude Juncker took charge of the European Commission in November 2014. From the start, he made it clear he wanted to tighten his grip on the policy with an overtly political Commission.
Juncker centralised communications by taking charge of the policy himself. It used to be a separate portfolio, held by his compatriot Vivian Reding in the last Barroso Commission.
Juncker also streamlined the Commission’s press relations. Where every one of the 28 Commissioners used to dispose of a press officer, he brought that number down to 6. Consequently, the number of press releases drastically dropped. Juncker’s chief of staff, the German lawyer Martin Selmayr, coordinates the press corps.
“Selmayr thinks he is a Communications God, but he is a bureaucrat and bureaucrats rarely have the gift of good communication”, estimates Gareth Harding, who also runs the Brussels programme of the Missouri School of Journalism. “His small team can not fulfil the growing interest of the Brussels-based media. The idea was to let the Commissioners speak to the media themselves, but they barely have time to call.”
Apart from the narrower field of communication, Europe also did not hesitate to call on media and culture for political purposes. These instruments of soft power were more emphatically applied since the mounting tensions with Russia. By the time Juncker took office, the Ukraine conflict had glided into an information war. The Russian propaganda machine turned a powerful weapon for Vladimir Putin, to the jealousy of many a leader in the free world. It was the signal for Europe to start counterbalancing Russia’s lies. The European External Action Service started doing so with a weekly “Disinformation Review” and is currently setting up Russian-language broadcasts for ethnic Russians in ex-Soviet
On EuroparlTV, a TV channel that rarely draws viewers despite millions of euros in yearly subsidies, the German MEP and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok in April talked about his recent experience in an Iraqi hotel room, where he could watch Russia Today, but neither the BBC nor Deutsche Welle. Brok called for extra budget and increased collaboration between European channels.
Gareth Harding does not believe the EU needs to counter propaganda with propaganda. “That would be largely counterproductive, as the people expect leaders to stand up for their values. But even if you accepted such efforts, the result is disappointing. Compared to Russia Today or Sputnik, the EU
counterpropaganda effort looks like it is designed by a twelve-year-old.”
Culture as a tool
The European soft power-toolkit has not been exhausted yet. On 8 June, European Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini and the Hungarian Commissioner for Culture and Education Tibor Navarcsics, came up with a new strategy to put culture at the heart of the external relations of the EU.
After prior consultation with NGOs it supports in culture and education, the Commission scanned how these organizations could expand their activities to the Eastern Partnership, the Middle East or some Asian countries. Russia or South-America are currently not topping that list of priorities. On social media, the sector enthusiastically welcomes its patron’s initiative, but behind the scenes resounded fear for instrumentalisation. Mogherini labeled culture “a strong tool” and Navracsics coined his portfolio “the hidden gem of our foreign policy”.
“In recent years Europe has imposed a strong economic logic on culture. We are currently not looking forward to be fitted into a geopolitical agenda”, is heard at one of the networks. “Creativity is at its best without guidance.”