Well before the Brexit shock, the EU institutions in Brussels were being criticised for carrying on with ‘business as usual’ – for fiddling while Rome burned. But business as usual is nothing to be ashamed of. The strength of the EU is the wide range of business that it quietly and efficiently conducts whatever the headlines may be screaming about. Its weakness is that so much of that crucially important business goes unsung.
As the EU’s machinery gets back into high gear after the summer break, the focus of attention will be on looming catastrophes. The UK government’s Brexiteers will be causing political and economic uncertainty, and may be about to open the floodgates to ‘me too’ EU membership referendums elsewhere. Everyone knows the eurozone’s malaise is not cured, only in remission. Yet these difficulties need to be placed in perspective. Important though they are, they pale in comparison with the EU’s continuing achievements.
So Brussels must start to fight back. Faced with mounting Euroscepticism right around the EU, it needs to present the cold, hard facts about the benefits of Europeans working together. The European Commission contributed in no small way to the Brexit debacle by retreating behind the alibi of ‘not interfering in a member state’s domestic affairs’. It failed to arm the UK’s ‘Remain’ campaigners with independent statistics and examples to refute the nonsensical claims of the Brexiteers. It must not make that mistake again.
There’s a bland assumption within the Brussels ‘bubble’ that voters know about the contribution EU-level actions and agreements make to their own prosperity and security. That’s not remotely the case, of course. We all know that for national politicians, success is home-grown and failure is born in Brussels.
This sad fact of life is generally accepted by anyone whose work has a European dimension. But it hasn’t led the Commission to sing the EU’s own praises more forcefully. EU citizens may know about Brussels’ fight to ban mobile roaming charges (although even with this success story, the Commission has had a communications mis-step in recent days). But how many are aware of the EU’s contributions on issues ranging from, say, climate change to social protection to competition policy? You name it and the EU has done much to achieve it – yet now the EU is an endangered political experiment.
The Commission should draw the necessary conclusions from its silence during the UK’s Brexit debate. It must use its resources of manpower and money to prepare factsheets that Europhile politicians, journalists and corporate and NGO opinion-formers can use to counter-attack those seeking to exploit the EU’s growing credibility gap.
The ‘information’ churned out by Commission spokesmen and communications staff is largely incomprehensible to all but specialists. No one denies that these details are essential to the smooth running of the EU machinery, but they do little to regain popular support for Europe.
The European public needs the bigger picture. Information is a second-class activity within the Commission, often handled by junior officials. The painting of convincing ‘warts and all’ pictures of Europe’s response to its challenges is above their pay grade. That is because it demands frank and realistic assessments of member governments’ shortcomings and of the EU itself. The result is that the Commission’s communications material is at best bland, and at worst unreadable.
The answer is for the senior echelons of the Commission to wake up an uncomfortable truth: popular perceptions are political reality. The EU – for the first time – faces an existential threat. So however pressing the policymaking priorities of commissioners and directors-general may be, explaining the EU’s more routine business is just as important, if not more so.
Giles Merritt is the Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe. His book “Slippery Slope – Europe’s Troubled Future”(Oxford University Press, May 2016) is one of the three non-fiction essays shortlisted for this year’s European Book Prize.
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