The human face of Eurocracy - Amid the anonymous bureaucracy in Brussels, European Commissioner Emma Bonino takes a refreshingly open approach to communications. John-Pierre Joyce talks to the woman behind the directorates

Emma Bonino must present a real problem for Eurosceptics. Approachable, plain-speaking and disarmingly open, Italy’s fisheries, consumer policy and humanitarian aid Commissioner does not correspond to the usual image of a grey, faceless Eurocrat. Recently savaged by the UK tabloid press for her supposed condemnation of US toys Barbie and Action Man as corrupters of European youth, Bonino always seems to be good for a story.

Emma Bonino must present a real problem for Eurosceptics.

Approachable, plain-speaking and disarmingly open, Italy’s fisheries,

consumer policy and humanitarian aid Commissioner does not correspond to

the usual image of a grey, faceless Eurocrat. Recently savaged by the UK

tabloid press for her supposed condemnation of US toys Barbie and Action

Man as corrupters of European youth, Bonino always seems to be good for

a story.

In an institution notorious for its elaborate procedures and often

accused of secretiveness, Bonino stands out as the one top official who

is prepared to cut through the formalities and talk directly to the

media on the most contentious issues - from slashing the size of

Europe’s fishing fleets to legalising cannabis. Indeed, Bonino probably

gives more press, radio and television interviews in a month than the

other 20 European commissioners do together in a year.

That direct approach, she argues, is vital if the European Commission is

to be understood and seen to be working by the European Union’s 370

million citizens. She also believes it is part of her job.

’I really do think that an open approach to the press comes from the

responsibility that we have, in the sense that it has a lot to do with

transparency and accountability,’ says Bonino. ’As much as it is

important to have open relations with the institutions such as the

European Parliament and ministers, I think the media is a way to be

transparent and accountable to public opinion. I cannot meet every

single citizen and the media is the tool to talk to them.’

She acknowledges, too, that her early experience in direct action

politics taught her the value of media exposure. Briefly imprisoned in

Italy in 1975 for having an illegal abortion, Bonino organised a public

campaign which not only secured her release but helped pave the way for

its eventual decriminalisation. As a member of the small Radical Party

she then entered parliament and led vigorous campaigns on divorce (which

prompted the Pope to call her a witch), nuclear power and the


’There was an attitude not to talk about us, so getting the interest of

the press was a very important issue,’ recalls Bonino. ’Sometimes I do

things for forgotten issues to draw attention and to open a debate

because its important to give a strong message.’ Even today she is just

as likely to be dodging bullets in war zones and confronting angry

fishermen on quaysides as hammering out deals at the negotiating table

in Brussels.

At the commission Bonino and her press secretary Filippo di Robilant

have adopted an ’open door’ approach to the media rather than the more

selective strategies of commissioners such as Sir Leon Brittan and

Yves-Thibault de Silguy - whom Bonino singles out as good


’If I have to be selective towards journalists it’s simply a question of

time,’ she says. ’I cannot receive everyone. I try, if I am not

available myself, to make sure that Filippo can be available or other

members of the cabinet. It’s true that this policy has not always been


Sometimes our declarations have been manipulated and I have had some

awful experiences, mostly from the UK press.’

Earlier this year, for instance, several members of Bonino’s cabinet

counselled a retreat from the media following a stream of negative

coverage and alleged misrepresentations. On one occasion Bonino was

accused of supporting the Labour Party in the British General Election

after saying in a radio interview that she hoped people with a more

Euro-friendly attitude would win.

The persistent Euroscepticism of the British tabloid press also

discouraged some of her staff. ’With the tabloids it’s a little bit

hopeless in the sense that they have a political stand and whatever you

say it’s foolish,’ says Bonino. ’But I keep the door open for them also,

even if sometimes I get a little bit nervous - or irritated.’

Internally, Bonino also takes an active role in communications. She

holds working meetings with her eight-member cabinet every morning

between nine and ten o’clock. These cover general issues and specific

matters relating to her three portfolios. In addition, she holds

meetings with key personnel from Directorate-General XIV (fisheries),

Directorate-General XXIV (consumer policy) and European Community

Humanitarian Office (ECHO) at least every ten days. As well as keeping

her staff informed of developments, the meetings also help with the

policy making process. ’People who really deal with the subject can give

you their reaction and remind you that some member states will not

accept a certain position,’ says Bonino. ’Its very important to have

their feedback in order to make a viable policy.’

Bonino has also been instrumental in encouraging a more open and

friendly attitude to the media in the information units within her

policy departments.

Such units already exist in ECHO and DG XXIV - which is currently being

expanded to take responsibility for food safety - and plans are underway

for a similar unit to be set up in DG XIV. Staff are encouraged to

cultivate their own contacts with the press and to take a more proactive

approach to communications.

Where necessary, external public relations consultancies are recruited

to help devise and implement specific communications programmes. These

are often the result of suggestions from director-generals, cabinet

staff or European Union representatives in the member states. Bonino,

however, finds that the standard of PR agencies varies enormously.

’Selling a policy is not like selling Coca-Cola,’ she explains.

’Sometimes (agencies) are resistant to accepting some suggestions in

which I try to say I want to sell a value and I don’t want to sell it

simplistically. With humanitarian aid, for instance, I don’t want to

sell a crying child. I am very passionate about a crying child but

humanitarian aid today is much more complex than that, so you have to

make an effort to put forward a more complex message.’

In terms of the European Commission’s own reputation, Bonino feels that

the best way to ensure transparency is to adopt her own model of having

one small unit dedicated to media relations and information in every

Directorate-General, with the Commission’s publicity wing, DG X,

handling communications for major campaigns such as Citizens First and

the single currency. But while acknowledging that the Commission needs

to be a more open institution, she thinks that criticism is often

unjustified. ’Sometimes we do not explain enough, but sometimes people

don’t want to listen, particularly when the messages are tough,’ she

says. ’In any case, I don’t see national governments being much more

open and all institutions have a tendency to get very introverted. We

even develop a particular language and sometimes we only understand each

other, but that’s no different if you talk to sailors or people who use


As for the UK, Bonino thinks that the commission’s efforts to

communicate have been made even harder by poor understanding of the

European Union.

’Brussels does not decide anything,’ she stresses. ’The Commission has

the duty to make proposals, but every single decision is decided upon by

ministers. And that is really something that the UK public seems to have

difficulty in understanding.

’When I travelled there last year fishermen were really convinced that

when I get up at eight o’clock in the morning I make a decision and this

decision is implemented at two o’clock. Because the UK fishing industry

doesn’t know the different steps of the decision-making process they are

always lobbying in the wrong place. You never find them where they

should be. I have made major efforts travelling in your country and

doing all the interviews I have been asked for, trying always to tell

the same story - if you don’t like this proposal you can take such and

such steps. But I have the feeling that in the UK the easiest thing is

to look for a scapegoat.’


By her own admission, fisheries is Emma Bonino’s toughest portfolio.

Last year her proposals for a 40 per cent cut in catches of some

threatened fish stocks and a 15 per cent reduction in the size of

European Union fleets over five years unleashed a storm of protest from

ministers and fishermen alike. But Bonino’s repeated message to the

industry is simple: reduce capacity or there will be no fish left and

the industry will not survive.

That message is also directed at consumers, and in March this year

Bonino launched a 12-month public relations campaign aimed at

encouraging the consumption of less popular varieties of fish and

seafood across the European Union. Following a suggestion from

Directorate-General XIV chief Jose Almeida Serra and consultation with

Bonino’s press secretary Filippo di Robilant and other experts, a public

call for tender was issued in the Official Journal of the European

Communities by DG XIV last August. Around 20 firms submitted tenders and

Italian consultancy Milano and Grey was appointed in December.

The campaign focuses in particular on areas of northern Europe - such as

Germany and parts of Scandinavia - where fish consumption is relatively

low. It has two main objectives. Firstly, to promote the health benefits

of fish and seafood generally. Secondly, to encourage people to buy

species such as sardines which are less popular and not overfished

rather than traditional favourites such as cod, herring, monkfish and

lobster whose numbers are dwindling fast.

A major part of Milano and Grey’s brief is to organise ten events over

the course of the year. These include local festivals and shows to

demonstrate new and imaginative ways of preparing fish and more serious

conferences and round table debates. In an effort to bring the fishing

industry round to the European Commission’s way of thinking, several of

these events are being organised with the co-operation of local country

fishery associations.

As Bonino explains, only by working together with the Commission and

consumers can the fishing industry save itself from gradual


’Nobody eats the kind of fish that we still have,’ she says. ’I cannot

multiply fish, but I have a responsibility to try to sort this sector

out of permanent crisis and make it economically viable for the future.’

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