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Brussels is losing the public opinion battle

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The EU institutions’ approach to communicating with its citizenry has been not a story of success, claims Philippe Cayla, the former head of the Euronews TV channel. He elaborates on points needed to reverse this negative trend and the way how Brussels can re-connect with the media and with public opinion.

 

The problems of communication rather than of decision-making are the most striking feature of today’s European crisis. Whereas decision-making is at the heart of politics, it is communication, particularly through the media, that determines popular support in a democracy. To put it bluntly, Europe has failed in terms both of its communication methods and their content.

The European Commission has a yearly communications budget of some €500m at its disposal. Each commissioner, or to be more precise each Directorate-General (DG), is allocated a proportion of that budget irrespective of the Commission’s priorities. DG Communication, which is responsible for coordinating the overall communication budget, is allocated a higher proportion amounting to 20% of the total.
 
The Commission’s approach has four fundamental weaknesses: a lack of strategy, excessive centralisation, the predominant use of English, and its focus on print.
The Commission at times communicates on unimportant directives, a good example being the recent Directive on toilet flushing mechanisms. That casts doubts in the minds of media and political commentators that are quickly relayed to the general public.

The EU commissioners themselves rarely give press conferences in person, which suggests that they must be unaware of the political importance of communication. The reforms that followed the humiliating resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999 over allegations of corruption have resulted in a system under which Directorates-General sign contracts which are binding on the Commission, and thus hold the real power. The commissioners themselves sometimes appear to be relegated to the role of spokespersons for the DG they are responsible for.
The president of the Commission occasionally provides summary communications on the “State of the Union”, but these over-views are often hijacked by EU heads of government, whose perspective on the issues is purely national. At the same time, co-operation between the EU’s institutions leaves much to be desired. The faces of Europe – the presidents of the Commission, the Council and the Parliament – often express diverging and even contradictory views.

The Commission’s communication efforts in the member states are aimed at the general public, but are based on a double fallacy: first, that the EU’s member governments are best placed to explain European policy to their own citizens, and secondly that commissioners, who have been nominated by their own member state are also able to make a substantial contribution to promoting the EU at home.
On the first point, it’s clear that member states are generally unwilling to play the game; every meeting of the European Council sees EU national leaders giving their own versions of events; they put their own policies forward in a positive light and blame Brussels for whatever they failed to negotiate successfully or for outcomes that don’t suit their interests.
The second one is that on the whole commissioners simply cannot live up to a national communications role. Quite apart from having limited abilities in this area, they can’t be in Brussels and in their own country at the same time.
The Commission’s communications in the member states clearly leaves much to be desired. The Commission has information offices in the national capitals, but its delegates lack the resources they need, and are not given much air-time in national public debates. The result is that debate on European policy stays for the most part in Brussels.

The majority of European citizens are in no position to debate in a foreign language. Research suggests that only 5% of non-English speakers are capable of debating issues in English, and that’s particularly true when English native speakers are part of the discussion. In other words, English-only communication will fail to reach 95% of non-native English-speakers, and is likely to irritate the majority.
English has secured a place as the “lingua franca” in European business circles, in university studies and for research. But political communication should not be limited to a single language. Politics affects all of Europe’s citizens, not just the cosmopolitan elite that speaks English. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that English is the medium for a British political culture that is hostile to European integration. The use of English cannot fail to fuel the fires of euroscepticism, and the long-term rejection of European integration. Commentaries written in English tend to be coloured with the bias inherent in the Anglo-Saxon culture. In my view, the rise of euroscepticism is directly correlated to the increased use of English in communications from the Commission. There needs to be a return to multilingualism, and in the words of Umberto Eco, “translation is the language of Europe.”

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Either European citizens don’t understand the issues, or they can’t understand why governments are unable to reach agreement. Instead of targeting the self-seeking and even mercenary attitudes of the member states, the Commission which is itself so often made a scapegoat, stands accused of incompetence and mismanagement

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Visitors to one of the Commission’s “Europe Direct” centres in a national capital will note well-located, large and well-appointed offices, substantial numbers of staff with little to occupy them, tons of documents, and few if any visitors.
When it comes to TV, the Commission uses the EbS (Europe by Satellite) system launched almost 20 years ago to provide television networks with content, but has no television presence apart from Euronews, the only European news channel, and which it has to be said is funded in drips and drabs. The official websites of the Commission and the Parliament certainly lack vitality, and the Commission’s website lacks uniformity and leaves far too great an autonomy to each DG, which leads to widely varying levels of quality. The use of social networking sites is a recent development, but still occurs only sporadically.

Desirable as it is, a move to a less technocratic and more political EU communications strategy would be nothing short of a mini-revolution. First, the strategic nature of communication should be affirmed by centralising the communications budget under the authority of the president of the Commission. Only the president has the overview needed to determine the themes and timing of Commission communications. Spokespersons, currently reporting to both their own commissioner and to the president, should report to the president only. Such a change would show Brussels that communication policy should reflect the political priorities of the day, not the administrative concerns of the civil servants.

Second, the role of the Commission’s delegations in the member states should be reinforced. National delegates of the Commission should have greater power and more resources placed at their disposal, and they should report directly to the Commission president and the College of commissioners. They should set out for them the current state of public opinion in each country.

As much as €250m yearly, half of the total communications budget, should be allocated to the EU’s communication effort in each member state, adjusted to population, to give delegates the resources they need to make an impact on the local media. And the Commission should base its communications policies on statistics that measure the state of public opinion in each country to help ensure they get the most important messages out.

The principle of multilingualism should be fully respected. At present, the European Parliament is the only EU institution that offers fully multilingual debates and communications. It may well be acceptable for the Commission to use the three working languages of English, French and German for its day-to-day work, but all documents should be published simultaneously in all 24 official languages to ensure that the media in each country are on an equal footing. Commissioners should express themselves in their native language only, with simultaneous interpretation into all the other EU languages.

Another key point is that the EU’s communications should move away from printed media into radio, television and social networks. The EU institutions’ own publications, which tend to be cast aside and left in the dustbins, should be kept to a minimum and in many cases made available via download only.

As to the content of the EU’s communication materials, a revolutionary approach to the reform of EU communication policy is now needed. At present, the European Union’s communications are dominated by discussion of macroeconomic issues. And although these issues are important in terms of the health of the European economy, the Commission leaves itself open to two forms of criticism. First, only a fairly small minority of citizens have a real understanding of macroeconomic policy – the majority view the discussion as bureaucratic gibberish. Secondly, the real solutions to macroeconomic problems are mainly in the hands of EU member governments, either individually or collectively, so communication by the Commission tends either to reflect decisions taken by the Council, or to express its frustration with its own limitations.
The complex nature of EU-level problems, and the difficulties of finding solutions which often need the unanimity of member states, makes communication particularly problematic. Either European citizens don’t understand the issues, or they can’t understand why governments are unable to reach agreement. Instead of targeting the self-seeking and even mercenary attitudes of the member states, the Commission which is itself so often made a scapegoat, stands accused of incompetence and mismanagement.

The Commission therefore needs to go back to the drawing board on the content of its communication material, and focus on developing a feeling of belonging to the European community that gives people a greater sense of European citizenship. Twenty years on from the Maastricht treaty, European citizenship is still a vague and little-known concept for Europeans, and has instead come under fire from nationalist and populist politicians of every shade. Yet European citizenship is important, and Europe’s citizens benefit from a significant number of rights of growing importance. That is demonstrated in reports published regularly but which are nevertheless little-known.

The Commission’s policy is to strengthen the rights of all Europeans when travelling or living abroad in the EU. But its current approach is too focused on economic issues, with political rights falling by the wayside. Promoting awareness of the importance of European citizenship is an important way of ensuring popular commitment to the European ideal – something that’s lacking in so many ways today. Working on the political aspects of European citizenship is undoubtedly the best way Brussels can do justice to the EU’s communications and to its power to attract and get people involved.

In the days of the Roman Empire, all hoped to be granted the honour of becoming “civis romanus”. Today, we are all “civis europeus”, but we don’t have the same awareness or pride as did the Romans. The Commission must foster that same feeling of pride, and should encourage us to wear, if not purple and gold, then the blue of a great empire of peace.

(First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission.)

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Is European humanity skin deep?

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At the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova at Palanca, refugees stand in line. © UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau

When talking about security the most common line of thought tends to be war and the actors involved in the attack, however, all the people who had regular lives within those territories that are jeopardized are as important. With the increasing tensions and armed conflicts happening within the Twenty First Century, the movement of people searching for shelter has increased. More asylum seekers leave their home countries every single day and contemporary politics is still struggling to find a way to catch up. Europe, history wise, is the zone of the world that deals with more refugees wanting to enter the continent due to different factors: geography, proximity, democratic systems, level of development and more. Nevertheless, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, true sentiments towards refugees are now being put on display.

Even though all refugees are fleeing their countries because their lives are in mortal danger, authorities and government officials do not seem to care. Processes to apply for the refugee status are getting harder and harder. In Europe, to apply for a refugee passport, people are asked for identifications, online questionaries and many other unrealistic aspects that if not answered correctly, the whole process is cancelled. It is ridiculous to believe that when people are scaping in order to stay alive, they will take under consideration all these requirements to receive help, sometimes even from neighboring countries. Which inevitably leads to the following question: why are refugees accepted based on the legality of their applications and not of their status?

By 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees reached European shores, which caused the so called refugee crisis. They came mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq: countries torn apart by armed conflicts. Similarly, with Russia’s invasion over the Ukraine in 2022, only few days deep within the fighting,  874,000 people had to flee their homes. Nonetheless, the issue seems to be that, for Europe, not all refugees are the same. When the refugee crisis in 2015 was declared, the European Union called for stopping and detaining all arriving refugees for around 18 months. There was a strong reluctancy from Europeans towards offering them shelter. On the contrary, countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said that Ukrainian refugees fleeing will be accepted without passports, or any valid travel documents due to the urgency of the situation. Therefore, stating with their actions, that Ukrainian refugees are more valuable or seem to be more worthy of help than refugees from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

Correspondingly, it is true that not all countries inside Europe deal and act the same way towards refugees, be that as it may, with the current refugee crisis it has been proved that they all share strong sentiments of xenophobia and racism. For instance, Hungary is a country that refused to admit refugees coming from outside Europe since 2015. In 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” to society, in comparison with Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed without hesitation. In the same way, Jarosław Kaczyński, who served as Prime Minister of Poland and is the leader of the Law and Justice party, in 2017 said that accepting asylum seekers from Syria would be dangerous and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country”. Furthermore, Germany in 2015 with Chancellor Angela Merkel in charged said that they would accept one million of Syrians. Although, as time passed, Europe’s solution was to make a deal with Turkey, who is not part of the European Union, to close the migrant route. Moreover, the promise of letting refugees integrate into German society was not fulfilled since. Seven year later, an impressive amount of refugees are still in camps and centers, with their lives frozen in time. Sadly, most European governments gambled towards the idea of sending them back once the armed conflict was over, without caring for the aftermath of war’s destruction.

The common narrative until now pushed by leaders, politicians, and mass media has been that Ukrainians are prosperous, civilized, middle class working people, but refugees coming from the Middle East are terrorists, and refuges from Africa are simply too different. Despite, refugees are all people who share similar emotions and struggle to grasp the fact that their lives may never be the same; having lost their homes, friends, family and so much more. Plus, being selectively welcomed based on their religion, skin color or nationality by the continent which’s complete rhetoric is universal rights, just adds another complex layer to the issue. Conjointly, the displacement of people due to war displays how regular individuals are always the ones who suffer the most in consequence to the interests of the few that represent larger powers. Hence, greed, envy, and cruelty are stronger than recognized, even in a developed continent such as Europe.

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What Everyone Should Know About Preventing Ethnic Violence: The Case of Bosnia

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Image source: srebrenica.org.uk

When the Balkans spiraled into violence and genocide in the 90’s, many wondered what caused this resurgence in militant ethnic nationalism and how a similar situation may be countered.

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The 1990’s were a vibrant decade, that is unless you were living in the Balkans. 1995 was especially bad, as the 11th of July of that year marked the Srebrenica Massacre, which saw Serbian soldiers murder over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the span of two weeks. This shocked the world, as it was the first case of a European country resorting to extreme violence and genocide on ethnic lines since World War II. After World War II, the idea that a European country would resort to genocide was unthinkable. As Balkan nations continue to see the consequences of the massacre after over 25 years, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be done to curb ethnic violence.

We must first investigate key causes of ethnic violence. According to V.P. Gagnon, the main driver of ethnic violence is elites that wish to stay in power. Ethnic nationalism is easy to exploit, as creating a scapegoat is extremely effective for keeping elites in power. This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia, which had previously seen high levels of tolerance and intermarriage in more mixed areas that saw the worst violence during the war. Stuart J. Kaufman argues that elites may take advantage of natural psychological fears of in-group extinction, creating group myths, or stereotypes, of outgroups to fuel hatred against them. While they may take different approaches to this issue, Gagnon and Kaufman agree that the main drivers of ethnic violence are the elites.

David Lake and Donald Rothchild suggest that the main driver of ethnic conflict is collective fears for the future of in-groups. Fear is one of the most important emotions we have because it helps secure our existence in a hostile world. However, fear can easily be exploited by the elites to achieve their personal goals. In a multiethnic society such as Yugoslavia, the rise of an elite that adheres to the prospects of a single ethnic group could prove dangerous and sometimes even disastrous. The destruction of Yugoslavian hegemony under Josip Broz Tito and the resulting explosion of ethnic conflict at the hands of Serbian elites in Bosnia underline this because of the immense fear this created.

Regions with high Serb populations in Bosnia sought independence from the rest of the country when they found themselves separated from Serbia by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Republika Srpska was formed by these alienated Serbs. The leadership and elites in Serbia riled up the Serb population of Republika Srpska by stereotyping and demonizing Bosnian Muslims as “descendants of the Turkish oppressors”. This scared the Serbs in Bosnia so much so that they obeyed the elites of Serbia in supporting and fighting for the independence of Republika Srpska by any means necessary. As was seen in Srebrenica, they were not opposed to genocide.

We know how the elites fuel ethnic tensions to secure power as well of the devastating effects of these tensions reaching their boiling point. But what could be done to address ethnic conflict? David Welsh suggests that a remedy for ethnic conflict could be the complete enfranchisement of ethnic minorities and deterrence towards ethnic cleansing. This means that we must ensure that ethnic minorities are able to have a say in a democratic system that caters to all ethnicities equally. Fostering aversion to genocide is also vital toward addressing ethnic conflict because it is the inevitable result of unchecked ethnic conflict.

There is also the issue of members of ethnic groups voting for candidates and parties on ethnic lines. For example, in the United States, White American voters have shown to prefer White candidates over African American candidates, and vice versa. Keep in mind that the United States has a deep history of ethnic conflict, including the centuries-long subjugation of African Americans by White Americans.

Ethnic violence is horrifying and destructive, but it can be prevented. The first measure would be the establishment of a representative democracy, where members of all ethnicities are accurately represented. Another measure would be to make ethnic conflict and ethnic stereotyping taboo so that the average person would not resort to genocidal behavior once things go wrong. Lastly, making people feel secure is the most important step towards preventing ethnic conflict. If the people feel secure enough, they will not even need to think about ethnic violence. In short, while it is important to consider the differences of the various ethnic groups in a multiethnic society, it is vital that each group is kept represented and secure, free of any fears of subjugation.

While the case of Bosnia was extremely unfortunate, it provides an integral view into what could happen if perceived subjugation and fear of eradication reaches a breaking point. As was seen in Bosnia, ethnic violence can be extremely violent, resulting in untold suffering and death. That is why we must take necessary steps towards de-escalation and remediation of ethnic conflicts. These measures can, quite literally, save millions of lives.

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French Presidential Election 2022 and its significance for Europe

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Eugene Delacroix’s infamous painting “la liberté Guidant le Peuple” reminds the whole world of the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled King Charles X of France. The lady in the centre of the painting with the French tricolour still symbolizes the concept of liberty and reminds the whole world of revolutions and sacrifices made for freedom. France indeed has a long journey from revolting against “if they have no bread, let them eat cake” in 1789 to establishing a modern democratic society with the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.  

France and the United States are rightly considered the birthplace of modern democracy. The French revolution taught the whole world lessons about revolution, freedom modern nationalism, liberalism and sovereignty. In 2022, France celebrates the 233rd year of Bastille Day which led to a new dawn in the French political system. From establishing 1ere Republique (1st Republic) in 1792, France has evolved and is currently under the 5eme Republique (5th Republic) under the constitution crafted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

Today, France is holding its presidential elections. As the French believe, ‘You first vote with your heart, then your head’, the first round of voting was concluded on Sunday 10th April and the Presidential debate on 20th April 2022. While the whole world waits for the 24th of April’s second round of elections and their results, this article attempts to understand the French electoral system and analyze Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

French electoral system

France is a semi-presidential democracy; the president is at the centre of power and Prime Minister heads the government. The president of the French republic is elected by direct universal suffrage where all French citizens aged 18 and above can vote, whether residing in France or not. In France, there is a two-round system in which voters vote twice on two Sundays, two weeks apart. This two-round system is widely practised in central and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, South America and Africa.

In order to apply, a candidate needs 500 signatures of elected officials and they should be at least from 30 government departments. A candidate can be an independent or he or she can represent a political party. There is no limit to how many candidates can run for presidential elections. For instance, in 2002 there were 16 candidates, in 2017- 11 and in 2022 there are 12. While all the candidates have the right to equal media presence, the amount of spending on campaigns is also monitored; for the 1st round, the spending must not exceed 16.9 million euros and for the second round, it has been limited to 22.5 million euros.

This year, the 1st round of voting was concluded on 10th April while the second one is scheduled to be held on 24th April 2022. In the first round, all 12 candidates were eligible but for the second round, only two candidates who got the maximum votes are qualified for the second round.

A brief overview of French presidential candidates

Emmanuel Macron, five years ago at the age of 39, became the youngest French president of the French republic. In 2017, he broke the dominance of the two major French parties- Republicans and Socialists- by running a campaign “neither left nor right”. During the tenure of Emmanuel Macron, a hardcore centrist, France has witnessed a 7% GDP growth, unemployment dropped by 7.2% and the crime rate has fallen to 27%.

A far-rightist, Marine Le Pen is the other presidential candidate who succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as leader of the National Front (later National Rally) party in 2011. She was also contesting against Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 elections and before that in 2012, against Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. While she embraced the party’s anti-immigration stance, she rebranded the party’s Euroskepticism as French nationalism.

This year, in the April 2022 elections, the current President of France, Emanuel Macron and far-right leader, Marine Le Pen are the two candidates with Macron running ahead with a lead of 4.7 per cent votes (Emmanuel Macron-27.8% & Marine Le Pen- 23.1%).

Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

While European defence is primarily assured by the US-led NATO military alliance, of which most EU states are members, French president Macron said,  “Europe needs to finally build its own collective security framework on our continent…”, advocating for a ‘European Security’ framework amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

On the other hand, Le Pen’s party has been looked upon suspiciously that it might have received financing from a Russian bank connected to the Russian President Putin. In an interview with French public radion, Le pen said, “It will be necessary diplomatically, when the war [in Ukraine] is over, when a peace treaty has been signed, to try to avoid this tie-up which risks being the largest danger of the 21st century for us,” she even further added, “Imagine … if we let the first producer of raw materials in the world — which is Russia — [create an alliance] with the first factory of the world — which is China — to let them perhaps constitute the first military power of the world. I believe that it’s a potentially great danger.” These statements only further reinforce the claims that Le Pen is more pro-Russia.

While Macron is anti-Brexit, Le Pen, on the other hand, has been known for her ‘Frexit’ plan, meaning, that she wanted France to leave the EU and abandon the euro. However, during the 2022 elections, it appears that Le Pen has softened her stance on Frexit. Another important issue pertaining to immigration has been significant not only for France but the whole of Europe. This issue of immigration is directly linked with the “economic and cultural concerns” which raises an important worry about immigrants’ socio-political and economic integration into the French society and abiding by the principle of laïcité (secularism with French characters).

As for Macron, he wants to create a “rapid reaction force” to help protect EU states’ borders in case of a migrant surge and is also pushing for a rethink of the bloc’s asylum application process. Macron also said that he urges the EU to be more efficient in deporting those refused entries. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen during her campaign stated, “I will control immigration and establish security for all.” It is pertinent to note that Macron has introduced strict laws pertaining to immigration and controlling Islamic radicalization. For instance, he introduced the bill to ban foreign funding to mosques.

What is more interesting to mention is the concerns about ‘energy’ in the presidential election. Evidently, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has gained more attention on the economic and geopolitical consequences of existing national and European energy supply chain choices. In France especially, there is a major rift between the pro and anti-nuclear power fractions. Interestingly, France has the second most nuclear power stations in the world after the United States.  Besides, in the last week of the elections, Macron has been attempting to win the hearts of the French voters with his proposal for a “complete renewal” of his climate policy. He has also promised to build up to 14 nuclear reactors by 2050 and regenerate existing plants. Meanwhile, Le Pen has promised to build 20 nuclear plants and aim to have nuclear power provide 81 per cent of France’s energy by 2050. While the current president Macron and far-right candidate Le Pen have both committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, it is evident that their approaches differ particularly on energy. Since France is Europe’s second-biggest economy, France’s climate policy could echo right across the EU.

Besides, in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, Macron has played a significant role as he is the bridgehead for Russia and the US. He has also negotiated talks between Washington DC and Moscow and has also condemned the crisis by making the statement, “Russia is not under attack, it is the aggressor. As some unsustainable propaganda would have us believe, this war is not as big as the battle against, that is a lie.” Indeed, he has played the role of Europe’s de-facto leader vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis. Nonetheless, with a marginal win in the first round against Marine Le Pen, winning the 2nd term is not as easy as it was five years ago.

More importantly, it is pertinent to note that France has the 2nd strongest military and 2nd biggest economy in Europe, further the 5th biggest economy in the world. France is not only the most visited country in the world but also ranks 1st in the global soft power index. It is also the founding member of the United Nations Security Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union which makes it an important player in European politics. Consequently, the policies of the French leadership not only direct the political, social and economic lives of the French but also reverberate in Europe.

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