First, I cannot prevent myself to look at it as the 4th or 5th ‘new communication strategy’ of the Commission towards citizens that I know of since I started my European activities 20 years ago. Almost each new Commission decides that it must do something new … because the previous one has failed! Most of the time, the ‘new Commission strategy’ is defined by the modification of two ‘key’ parameters :
. the degree of centralization or decentralization of the communication conception and implementation within the Commission itself
. the extent to which they will rely upon consulting and communication firms or ‘citizens relays’ such as the Brussels based NGOs.
In the past 20 years, I think that I have witnessed (and sometimes been involved into) all possible combinations of those parameters, with only one lesson to retain: unless the Commission has something strong to say, with a direct interest for the citizens (either because it addresses one of their expectations, either because it makes them dream about a better future), the communication strategy always result in a failure.
To put it bluntly, today, we are exactly in that very scenario with internal reshuffling regarding communication’s services and the appointment of a dedicated Commissioner, Mrs Wallström (while in the previous Commission it was centralized at Prodi’s level), but no idea of what to talk about and, especially what to propose concretely to citizens.
But of course, we are not anymore 20 years ago; we are not even anymore at the point where the Commission stood just 5 years ago. We are at a time where it has lost most of the credibility it generated in the first decades of the EU. Politically it turned into a marginal player with the Council and the Parliament now looking like the main actors. Its image as a bureaucracy got even worse since the ‘mad cow disease’ crisis and the succession of unresolved scandals affecting its top-bureaucracy. Meanwhile, its neglect towards what should have been its main ‘communication asset’ during the 90s, the EU programmes beneficiaries, transformed a ‘pro-Commission’ key constituency (if not the only possible one) into a very critical one.
If I may I would like to elaborate a bit on that one because it is a very important element to understand what went wrong in the EU institutions’ communication; and why ‘communication strategies’ cannot anymore solve the ‘communication deficit’ of the EU.
At the end of the 80s, thousands of enthusiastic professors, Ngo leaders, local authorities officials, researchers, SME’s executives, … joined the bandwagon of the newly created ‘EU programmes’ in the fields of research, academic exchanges, regional cooperation, international cooperation, environment, training, … . They became dozens of thousands in the early nineties* and as a cumulated group, exceeded half a million people.
What a ‘dream partner’ for a Commission’s communication strategy! Unfortunately, it never became such a partner and as a result turned out to be today one of the most critical group when it comes to give opinions on the ways the EU system works.
Why such a communication failure? As I told once an audience of 200 EU Commission officials in Brussels (that was early 1999 when the heat was mounting in Brussels, ahead of Santer’s resignation), indeed if I was to give 12 billions Euros a year to a group of people, I would at least expect some of them to come up and defend me when I am attacked, on the very policies which give them this money. But in 1998/99 (and after) nobody stood up to defend the EU programmes at stake. A lady from the Commission, in this audience, asked me why such a situation occurred. My answer was simple: the EU programmes beneficiaries understood very fast that nobody was seriously concerned by what they were doing with the money granted to them, provide they sent on time the financial reports. They also understood that they had no impact on the policy making, on the programmes’ preparation; that when they were consulted, their comments were ending up in boxes ‘buried under the Rond Point Schumann’; that evaluations were a formal exercise with no impact of the future policies; that the programmes rapidly became power issues within the EU institutions, rather than instruments to seriously enhanced the EU and its operators. Meanwhile, they were obliged to comply with a growing number of financial regulations and complex procedures, being overwhelmed by ‘red tape’. As you may imagine, they made up their minds. And in private (not in public, in order not to loose their subventions) they became the strongest critics of the EU system; critics which are far more dangerous than ‘anti-Europeans’ because they are pro-Europeans and they know exactly what they are talking about.
I think that this example may help to understand why there is no ‘communication solution’ to the ‘communication deficit’, if only because a ‘beneficiary’ of EU programmes actually ‘makes the minds’ of 10 to 100 citizens upon EU affairs. It was 10 years ago that such solutions should have been implemented. Now, those beneficiaries of programmes do not expect nice words from the Commission. They want to be given the right to have a direct influence on the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the very policies and programmes they are part of. They want to move from a ‘beneficiary’ status to a ‘partner’ status. Nothing more, nothing else. And that is something which goes far beyond any ‘communication strategy’. It addresses directly the power structure of the Commission and of the EU institutions at large. It directly challenges the power of top bureaucrats and lobbyists. And in many ways, it perfectly embodies the core question for the EU institutions today: how to connect again with its citizens? And within the EU programmes, the ‘beneficiaries’ already voted with their feet as the vast majority of the most dynamic operators have already deserted those programmes which are becoming more and more ‘self-reproducing machines’.
Communication is not any more the answer; because communication is not anymore the question. The question has become political. Democratization, which means sharing more power with the people, is the only way out; and it is not through ‘consulting firms’, ‘communication agencies’, nor ‘Brussels based Ngos’ that such a goal may be reached. The only result of such a ‘new communication strategy’ will just be dozens of millions euros wasted. And it will reinforce the general feeling that the EU institutions have lost touch with people’s reality.
In coming weeks, with the launch of the ‘Yes-But campaign’ (Yes to the Constitution, but with Democracy on top), Newropeans will provide numerous examples of what EU democratisation will mean. Stay tuned!
* From 1992 on till 1996, with organizations such as Euro-Prospective, Prometheus-Europe and Arthur-Andersen, I was one the very persons who put on the EU institutions table that the Commission had generated a new kind of EU citizens, the ‘EU programmes beneficiaries’ which were representing about 500.000 people and organizations, receiving about 12 billions Euros a year. We were the first ones to add up this sum because as it was coming from different budget lines, none of the EU institutions had understood the fact that, from a civil society point of view, beneficiaries were one of a kind. Just that single fact illustrates how badly equipped are bureaucrats to understand citizens.
Franck Biancheri – Paris (France),9-02-2005