Tuesday

6th Dec 2016

Opinion

More spokespeople is not how to save the EU

  • A demonstration in Warsaw. The EU commission needs to recognise civic movements and NGOs as its new number one "communications strategy". (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

In his opinion piece from 13 September entitled “How to save the EU”, the author, an incognito EU official, offers advice on improving the commission’s communications.

But the first - understandably self-preservatory - point he makes, is to shift the blame for the declining trust in the EU from institutions to national governments.

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One doesn’t need to be a eurocrat to know that member states, in the best case scenario, put their own interests first, and in the worst case just have the governing party’s self-interest at heart.

Asking for national political elites to actively campaign for the EU, act as its spokesperson of sorts, is unrealistic.

Reclaiming European identity,

It was a task difficult to achieve back when the EU was still largely viewed positively and “jumping on the EU train” was a popular way for a political party, or government, to gain popularity.

Now, when member states are experiencing a flood of nationalistic and conservative powers, with Poland or Hungary run by politicians who made their careers on euroscepticism, the institutions have to radically change their way of thinking.

Take Poland for example. The PiS party government, backed by the nationalistic Kukiz’15 party, is steadily moving the country away not only from liberal democracy, but from European ideals in general.

But the first signs of that trend sparked a series of mass protests on a scale the country hasn’t seen since the fall of communism.

The biggest one to date, with over 200,000 participants in Warsaw and even more nation-wide, marched under the motto “We are and will remain in Europe”. These protests, organised by a grassroots movement, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), were by far the biggest European morale boost since the pro-EU protests in Kiev in 2014.

An effect such as this, the mass reclaiming of European identity, isn’t something any amount of EC spokespeople, in any number of talk shows, can achieve. And that’s what the EU badly needs.

For every action there’s a reaction. For every rise in nationalism there are civic movements and NGOs sprouting to defend European ideals.

The commission needs to recognise them as its new number one “communications strategy”. It can’t just pass pro-European messages down to citizens through their local offices and spokespeople, but most of all it should support the citizens who still want to fight for the EU on the ground.

Currently the only initiative the commission has in place to support civil society is the “Europe for Citizens” programme.

It’s a largely outdated machine, annually granting financial support to a lucky few, long-established NGOs. It was fit for an EU needing extra patting on the back now and then, not an EU requiring a heart transplant.

Empowering people

But the institutions could do so much more. Here are some ideas:

They could establish a civil society development fund, providing seed money to pro-European “start-ups”, just like it’s done in the IT world.

They could monitor member states for nationalistic “hot zones”, like the recent eruption of extreme-right (or, more bluntly, neo-Nazi) militias in Poland, marching through the streets of Gdansk on the occasion of a state funeral. The right-wing government turned a blind eye, but organisations such as these are an outright assault on the EU, so the EU should strike back.

They should also get actively involved in any initiatives providing a positive message, struggling to reclaim people’s minds for European ideals. They are the change agents, not the commission’s spokespeople.

Just in Poland there are dozens of movements and initiatives, some of them very young, combating hate speech, intolerance, racism and other close-minded ideology.

All around Europe there are hundreds others. Empower these courageous people and they will empower the EU. Let them know you’re standing behind them with more than a pat on the back.

As former US president Bill Clinton commented on the current presidential campaign on The Daily Show last Thursday: “We need to empower people, not enrage them, we need to give them answers, not anger.”

That’s how to save the EU.

Martin Mycielski is plenipotentiary of the Board for International Affairs at the Committee for the Defence of Democracy and founder of KOD International

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