Monday

26th Sep 2016

Opinion

How to save the EU

  • The Commission's virtual reality press briefings in Brussels are not enough to engage EU citizens (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Ideas on "how to save the EU" following the Brexit referendum have proliferated since 23 June.

These range from new political visions, through transferring power back to national capitals, and to launching ground-breaking initiatives to improve solidarity between member states.

There seems to be a widespread belief that the main reason why citizens in some member states are turning away from the EU is that the EU did not take specific action in the migration crisis, and that it acted when it should not have, for instance by overregulating the economy.

Yet the main reason for declining trust in the EU is not the idleness of its institutions or that barmy Brussels bureaucrats are banning olive oil jugs.

The real reasons are (1) the near total absence of a genuine EU perspective from discussions in national and local media and (2) unabated Brussels-bashing by the national political elite, with a clear link between the two.

It was a major mistake of the past years of the European Commission to deliberately stay out of national and local debates on the EU - most recently on Brexit.

Experience shows that the Commission's "let's avoid communication conflicts" policy did not lead to a more EU-friendly public opinion.

To the contrary, it allowed national politicians hand-in-hand with part of the media to step up their anti-Brussels rhetoric.

As a first step, the Commission must get out of its virtual reality of midday briefings, colourful brochures and elitist conferences.

It needs two or three highly professional, native speaking spokespersons in each member state.

Their role is not to stand behind a podium in the Commission's local office, but to participate day and night in radio talk shows, television news programmes and online media, finally giving that much needed face to the EU.

These local spokespeople must explain the facts, debunk the lies, and defend the EU position. Politely and firmly. Let's not be naive: the so-called "citizens dialogues" events with European commissioners and press statements read out by the heads of representations will not do the trick.

At the same time, there is a need for a new and loud commitment to the EU by the moderate national political elites.

As a previous president of the Commission has said: "If you spend all week blaming Europe, you can't ask people to vote for Europe on Sunday”.

That is especially true if ministers are making Brussels a scapegoat for decisions they themselves took in the EU Council or for Brussels not doing something for which member states did not give it the powers to act.

National politicians must stop blaming Brussels for their own failings for the sake of pursuing short-term (political party) objectives.

They have to start acting like statesmen and stateswomen and explain where and why the EU benefits their citizens.

Otherwise, people’s anti-elitist sentiment - the very feeling that some national leaders are now happy to feed in their anti-EU communications - risks wiping them off the map also, once there is no more EU to blame.

The author is currently working for an EU institution and asked to use a pen name

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