None the wiser: A story on failed EU communication

Nearly half of European citizens don’t know how the EU works. With three different presidents, two institutions called council and a power structure that baffles the most well-read, it is no wonder. But if knowledge is power and so many citizens lack just that, where does that leave us? And why is this problem, the so-called knowledge deficit, so hard to overcome?

For Scottish art student Jessica Barrie, voting in the European Parliament election last spring was a last minute decision.

“I got there half an hour before the ballot closed. I went because a friend told me to and I picked someone, as any artist would, based on appearance. A person I thought would be good in parliament, or wherever it is that they go.”

“I don’t really have an opinion on the EU because I don’t really know anything about it,” she adds.

Like Jessica, almost half of European citizens are uncertain of how the EU works. This was illustrated by a Eurobarometer-survey conducted in 2014 where two-thirds of the Europeans asked also claimed they felt poorly informed on European matters. Another study, conducted the same year, showed that almost 40 per cent of young Europeans felt they had been poorly informed about the European Elections.

“The experience felt quite alienating,” Jessica says about her voting experience.

“I didn’t learn about the EU in school. The things I know I found out because I asked about them, the information was never given to me and it never felt accessible.”

At Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre, political analyst Tania Marocchi agrees that education about the EU is often flawed.

“I’m positive that something can be done to fill this knowledge deficit. The problem is that in order to reduce it, the member states have to act. They have the authority over higher education policy.”

Marocchi is the programme executive of FutureLab Europe, a network that aims to empower young voices on topics such as democracy, participation and equal opportunities. She thinks that one of the biggest obstacles to better communication between the EU and its citizens is the fact that it always goes through the member states instead of directly to the citizens. However, in depth knowledge about the functioning of the EU is not always necessary for people to be able to express their vote in an informed way.

“You need to know some basics, though. You need to know what you are doing and that, for example, the party you vote for in national elections is going to be part of a bigger political family in the European Parliament. This link is not always clear to people.”

Habits Die Hard

The knowledge deficit is a serious problem. It compromises the democratic quality of the EU, which would be higher if people were better informed.

For young Europeans, abstaining from your first European Election may also have serious consequences for the future. Tania Marocchi says that it might be the start of a very bad habit.

“According to research by European Youth Forum, if you miss your first election, you are very likely to miss your second election and once you miss your third it is almost certain that you will never vote again in your life.”

She adds that this vicious circle also translates to the national level, so that abstaining from European elections in turn lessens the likelihood of voting at a national level in the future. This is an important issue, as many young Europeans reach voting age in time to participate in European elections before they have a chance to express their opinion in national elections.

“This lack of participation has consequences on the legitimacy of the EU and the sustainability of democracy.”

The more young people withdraw from political life the less represented they become. Fewer political parties will feel a need to present young candidates and connect with their young constituency. Young Europeans have never been as pro-Europe as now. The reason why they don’t participate in European elections is not that they don’t like the EU, but that they don’t feel represented. Out of the European Parliaments 751 members, only 56 people were below the age of 40 in 2014.

“The tendency is also for the parties to only have these young members talk about ‘young issues’, like youth unemployment and university education. It annoys me, because young people are young now but policies are set for the future.”

Out with the Old, in with the New

Tania Marocchi is not alone in thinking that the European Parliament is in need of some rejuvenation. Bas Eickhout, a 39-year-old Dutch European Parliament member representing the Greens also sat down with Euroscope in Brussels.

“We are not there yet. A change is going to take time but the European Parliament is getting rid of the older generation.”

According to Eickhout, the younger parliamentarians have a different outlook than their predecessors.

“For the new generation of politicians here in the EU, Brussels was actually the first choice. We care about EU politics and weren’t just sent here at random.”

The EU needs to show that there is passion and political fight in the policymaking, he says. Citizens need to see that policy is fought for by representatives who care about the outcome.

“We try to bring together political movements and political cultures from 28 different countries. It is hard and complicated but even a 0-0 match can be interesting to watch if you show how it played out. It becomes interesting because people are involved.”

It’s Complicated

The knowledge deficit and lack of communication between the EU and its citizens has several explanations. The complex structure of the EU institutions is one of them. As many people struggle to make sense of the way their national government functions, the EU system is a whole different level of complexity. In addition, it is far from a perfect system due to the countless compromises required in order to harmonise 28 different states into a single machine.

Tom Parker and Victoria Main, Managing director and Head of Media at PR consultancy Cambre Associates in Brussels, both have long experience working at the heart of EU affairs. To them, one of the major barriers to successful communication for the EU is the constant crisis mode it finds itself in.

“It’s little wonder that citizens don’t feel connected or trustful of the EU because all they really see is the EU related to one problem after the other. From the financial crisis and the Greek crisis to Brexit and the refugee crisis.”

The EU needs to address some fundamental issues with its member states and move away from the routine of heading from one emergency to the next by being more proactive about what it does and the value that it brings. The Union also needs to cease being a scapegoat, Parker and Main add.

“Member states have been disingenuous in the way that they have tried to use the EU and that has come back to bite some of them. For a long, long time, they have found it easy to just say ‘oh, it’s Brussels fault’.”

While they agree that the member states and the European Parliament have important roles to play in filling the knowledge deficit and improving communication, they are keen to mention the responsibility of the European Commission. As the EU’s executive branch and as the guardians of the treaties, it needs to do more.

“Part of that is working more closely with the member states to figure out how in each of them they can get the message across. It’s not enough to have an office in each member state capital with a few brochures.”

The Commission might be a big power player in the EU system but that doesn’t do much for its allure towards the citizens. It is an institution of civil servants and, according to Tom Parker, they are not the ultimate ambassadors for the story the EU should be telling.

“I’ve never really met a civil servant who’s bold me over with passion and enthusiasm. In terms of communication, there are some rather simple things that could be done that they are just not getting.”

Like Bas Eickhout, Parker and Main thinks that the EU lacks the spark that fuels interest. The Union has tried to convince people of its importance in a rational way, but as Tom Parker puts it “we are just not rational beings.” Staying true to form as a Public Relations expert, he points out that it is the irrational or the emotional that catches people’s attention. It has got to be about passion.

“What do we believe in and what is important in terms of our values? What are the things that you care about as a human being? That emotional side has not been adequately addressed by the EU.”

Political analyst Tania Marocchi is a bit more reluctant in her approach to passionate politics. She points out that there is opportunity in emotion but also danger.

“You have the opportunity to break barriers and connect with the general public but the emotional appeal is also used often by the populist parties.”

Strategy is Key 

There is a huge communication job to be done in the EU, Tom Parker and Victoria Main agrees, and it needs to be done professionally. The strategy required to get through in all the member states would not be of the one-size-fits-all variety. There are considerable differences in political and cultural identity between the member states that need to be taken into account. And it is not just about the message, but who delivers it.

“If I was their head of communications I would be thinking ‘who can be my champion?’. Not among the commissioners but rather a local chef or a sportsperson who could say ‘listen, I’m a football player who’s been playing abroad for a few years and the only way I could do that was with the free movement the EU has made possible’. “

The EU needs to explain why it matters to people in a way they can appreciate, Parker adds.

“We need to know that the lives we lead today are made possible by grey men and women in Brussels.”

Start from the Beginning

For the generations that remember Europe as the central stage for world wars and Iron curtains, the reasons for a European Union, particularly as a gateway to peace and prosperity, might be evident. That is not the reality for the majority of young Europeans today, however. Many of us cannot even remember, until recent developments took place, a time when passports were necessary to cross our borders. Here again, the importance of education and filling the knowledge deficit becomes evident, if the goal is to promote the necessity of a Union.

Student Jessica Barrie says she would probably be more concerned with the EU if she knew what the policies were about and how it would change and affect her own situation.

“It would just be good to know the actual facts of it, but also the things that happened in history. When the EU was there to solve a problem or, on the other hand, when it wasn’t and something bad came of it instead.”

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