News Analysis: Europe confronts its PR nightmare

Europe's institutions are stepping up efforts to improve their communications. A Brussels-based comms expert asks whether they can succeed

The European Commission's invitation to its ­citizens to ‘Have Your Say' on its Communication Policy White Paper expires on 30 September.

The EU authorities have been traditionally cast as ­increasingly distant entities. But in the two years since José Barroso became president of the European Commission, and vice-president Margot Wallström took on special responsibility for comms (PRWeek, 3 September 2004), the new buzz words in the corridors of Brussels have been transparency, communication and dialogue.

Wallström has been busy producing a communication action plan - Plan D (Debate, Dialogue and Demo­cracy) - culminating in the White Paper on which we have been invited to comment. But will all this cuddling up to the citizen be enough to revitalise the ­union's flagging popularity and give the European project new impetus? 

That the EU has a problem with its public image is not news. For decades, research by the commission's EU opinion pollster, Eurobarometer, has showed that popular trust in the union and support for membership are generally waning, and have rarely risen much above the midway mark - hardly a vote of confidence.

Speaking in tongues
The union also has a poor record of failure at referenda. The June 2005 French ‘non!' and Dutch ‘nee!' to the European constitution are obvious, seismic instances, but they were not the first: those with long memories will ­recall the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, Irish rejection of the Nice Treaty, and Danish and Swedish rejection of the euro.

Nor is there any mystery about the reasons for public disaffection with the union. As the red-tops tell us on a daily basis, EU issues and actions are complex and boring, and their impact negative, killjoy and superfluous; the EU - Brussels - moves in a mysterious way; above all, nobody bothers to explain issues so that ordinary people can understand them; when Brussels does talk to the public, it tends to do so in a Dr Doo­little-type language that only it speaks and only it can understand.

All of which is true, up to a point, but these are in reality only symptoms of deeper, more complex root causes, some inherent in the hybrid nature of the EU. Essentially, the EU is a PR nightmare, with not one European public to engage but a plethora, spread across an enormous land mass. On top of this - and crucially, in respect of the PR challenge ahead - the EU has its origins in a more deferential era that is long gone.

So, can the current flurry of activity bring about rapprochement between the EU elite and ordinary people? The precedents are not good, even with input from the public. The 1993 De Clercq ­Report by a committee of ‘sages' - drawn mostly from PR and advertising - concluded, among other things, that ‘Mother Europe must
protect her children'. The report was quickly buried. Ten years on, the EU had another bright idea for clicking with the citizen - an EU ­constitution.

Although reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's promise of glasnost, Wallström's initiatives appear to show a fresh will, so perhaps a new way will be found.

But it will require more than just ­determination and policy measures on the part of the commission. Besides
the acknowledged causes of public ­antipathy, there are a number of challenges that tend not to be addressed.

The EU institutions do little to help themselves. For historical reasons, although many who work there understand the challenges and want to tackle them, the communication culture within the commission itself is weak.

Alone among such organisations, it has no tradition of recruiting comms ­professionals (although this is changing). 

Problems are often compounded by the ­traditional mandarin tendency to defend their turf, whereas good public ­diplomacy practice requires thoroughgoing collaboration. The commission's own procurement red tape also infuriates comms-oriented officials (sweet irony).

National divisions
Worse still, instead of supporting and co-operating with the commission in their efforts to reach out to their ­people, all too often national governments and the European Parliament undermine and spike EC efforts for their own political ends. 

These and many other obstacles to good communication must be addres­sed and resolved if public confidence in the EU is to be restored. And this is now crucial.

The EU is now the world's largest economic and trade bloc; the euro is the world's second default currency; and the EU is moving to the centre of the world political stage and taking on new diplomatic responsibilities.

It is unthinkable that such a front-line entity can carry on with so little in the bank of public opinion.

As Wallström has pointed out, adroitly quoting WB Yeats's aphorism ‘In dreams begin responsibility', EU citizens also have to play their part in the democratic process.

So far they haven't - the original six-month deadline for citizens to have their say had to be extended owing to poor response. Perhaps secretly, Wallström is muttering to herself WB's more famous line, ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.'

Patrick Brooks, a former diplomat, has been involved in EU comms and ­awareness programmes since the early 1990s. Previously a director of GJW ­Europe, he now works as an independent adviser on public diplomacy to the EC, international institutions and national governments.

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