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Citizen – European project relations: Towards a « D for Democratisation » strategy

The current EU political crisis provoked by the French and Dutch « Noes » and by the resulting failure of the process of ratification of the European Constitution, in fact originates in the complete failure of more than 10 years of communication on the European project.

For many years, Europe 2020 has been analysing the fundamental weaknesses of both national and European communication policies in this field. In April 2005 already, Europe 2020 launched the idea of the « D for Democratisation » strategy, following a term used by Franck Biancheri, Director of Research and Strategy, in an article published on May 10th in Newropeans-Magazine : « [Yes or No to the referendum: the « D strategy » starts anyway on June 1st->http://www.newropeans-magazine.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2175&Itemid=125] ».

Obviously the expression had some success as both Commissioner Margot Wallström and EU Commission President Manuel Barroso used it recently. But the way it was meant by Europe 2020 had nothing to do with some « seduction » or « communication » device ; instead it introduced a proposition in favour of a radical change in the relations between citizens and the EU, a rejuvenated relation in which the Commission cannot be more than a marginal player. The French and Dutch referenda clearly indicated that an era was over, the era of « European construction » implemented by the institutions and the (mostly administrative) elites; and opened a new one, the era of governance or « EU government », which in a democratic system gives a central role to citizens and peoples.

The coming decade will be a long transition period between those two great stages of the European project, a period of “democratisation” of the EU, i.e. of transformation of an EU with no direct involvement of citizens and peoples into an EU where citizens and peoples will be the driving forces weighing on the big orientations of the European project.

{{ {{{Dismantling the counter-effective communication system handled by the Commission and transfering to the European Parliament the control of EU communication policies}}} }}

It is in this historic context only that the « D for Democratisation » strategy can be understood. But this context implies a number of fundamental changes in the « citizen/European project » relation that includes puttiong an end to then « EU communication » such as it has been implemented by the European Commission and the Member State in the last 10 years.
It is no longer a matter of “selling” the European idea, but a question of how to take into account the political expectations of the soon 500 million EU citizens.
It is no longer a matter of « promoting » the institutions, but a question of how to facilitate the on-going debate on the relevance of the actions conducted by them, and on their legitimacy and utility in the perspective of the new phase of « governance » which the EU has entered.
It is no longer a matter of organising a “propaganda” aimed at “valorising” the decisions of EU institutions, but a question of how to organise the informal debate that must take place outside the institutions on the relevance of these decisions.
It is no longer a matter of « educating » ignorant citizens to Europe, but a question of how to listen and empower millions of them who are involved in daily trans-European activities and who have their own vision of what should be the future of the EU, usually quite a different one from that of the institutions.

To make it short, the « D for democratisation » strategy consists in dismantling the « communication system » inherited from the late 80’s – early 90’s, turned by the Commission in the last 10 years into a now counter-effective « propaganda system », and relayed by many ministerial departments in the EU and by an impressive number of communication companies, journalists and experts who directly benefit from the financial manna available for this « communication policy » (1). The communication policy must in fact be re-oriented on two central missions: first, to communicate the existence of European policies; and second, to stimulate a trans-European democratic debate. It should therefore be placed in the hands of each Directorate General concerned as regards the first mission ; and in those of the European Parliament turned into the real representative of the European public will, as regards the second mission.

For different reasons clearly revealed by the referenda, any competence in terms of transversal communication of the European project should be withdrawn from the Commission. Indeed, in terms of public debate and perception, the Commission has become part of the problem and no longer an element of solution. Everywhere in the EU today, Commission-related connotations have become strongly negative because often associated to concepts such as : bureaucracy, remoteness, privileges, arrogance, scandals, corruption, lack of efficiency, over-regulation,… Its action, whichever it is, suffers from this reputation; the Commission is now a counter-effective “transmitter » that goes against a positive perception of any message (even when the message is positive originally) (2).

Concerning the transversal communication, the European Parliament and the parties represented in it should be in charge of the general EU communication approach, a political one. Indeed it is important to strengthen the ‘trans-European political representation”, which is the only way to close the gap between the EU and the citizens and to place the citizen at the centre of the political relays enabling him to act on a European scale. Though Europe 2020 remains convinced that the present gathering of national parties is not able to respond efficiently to the citizen demand for real trans-European political movements (see [Post-Referendum Paper Nr 1->http://www.europe2020.org/spip/spip.php?article71&lang=en]: The unavoidable differentiation between Euroland / European Union), they are at this stage nevertheless the only operators available to relay public expectations; in this sense they should be considered as the central operators of a “D strategy”. This kind of development will also be the sign of a clear transfer of power (and not only of competences) from the technocrats to the politicians, responding in this sense to the demand expressed in the referenda.

{{ {{{On a national level, let the States recover control of their EU communication and rely on real civil society rather than on communication experts and obsolete « pro-European » relays}}} }}

On a national level, the implementation of the « D Strategy » requires to reconsider drastically a number of practices developed in the last decade. First of all, governments should acknowledge the complete failure of the campaigns conducted by communication agencies in the framework of the referendum. The required political neutrality of these campaigns (supposedly neutral as regard to the proposed choice) combined with the understandable longing of governments to however favourr the message they support, has led to one more version of « little children and European flags » adverts displaying mottos about Europe and the future. The generations born after the Treaty of Rome (those who said “No” in majority) have become totally impenetrable to this type of symbolic when used with a political purpose. On the opposite, and that is where the French and Dutch governments failed, citizens demand debates.

Europe 2020, who organised/participated to more than 25 contradictory debates during the French and Dutch referenda, would like to remind that debates only make sense when they are “contradictory”. It is a sign of the total incompatibility at this stage between our leaders and a « D strategy » that, in the campaigns financed on public funds (or initiated by organisations themselves financed on public funds and therefore used as « hidden relays » of the governments and the Commission), the debates organised before the referenda were hardly ever contradictory ; they were rather « informative debates », i.e. exchanges between “those who know” talking on a tribune and “those who don’t know” listening in the room. It is no longer needed to prove the inefficiency of this type of operation, which however swallowed up most of the budgets allocated for the campaign by the concerned ministry departments.

The reason to this is simple and is analysed by Europe 2020 in the executive summary of the seminar on « EU Democratisation: The conditions of success of a public debate on Europe’s future orientations » organised in April 2001 and in the [October 2004 Strategic note to the French MFA->http://www.europe2020.org/spip/spip.php?article69&lang=en] : citizens now have opinions on the EU more than they have questions; and they want to confront these opinions with representatives of the various positions available on European issues. They no longer want to hear arrogant technocrats and ignorant politicians talk about “Europe”, “peace” and “the future of our children”. As a matter of fact, the action of the ministry services in charge of communicating Europe must now concentrate on supporting large-scale actions, covering the entire territory and likely to fuel contradictory debates. For such developments to take place, the personnel must be changed both within the concerned ministries and among the “usual partners” of these institutions.

{{ {{{The “D for democratisation” strategy depends on practices aimed at restoring the citizens’ confidence in their representatives (elected officials and civil servants) when it comes to European issues}}} }}

As regards the ministries, Europe 2020 would like to cast some light on a wide-ranging EU drift which, beyond the aspects of communication, relates to the democratic issue ; indeed a D strategy cannot reduce its scope to image, it must relate to the reality of political practices. The EU can only recover its reputation by appearing as a vector of contradictory debates and therefore of democracy ; certainly not by using “USSR”-types of methods, in which parliaments vote by majorities of 90% (when citizens are known to be divided) and debates are restricted to the right of asking questions and only the “good” ones! The credibility crisis of national representatives when it comes to European issues comes from this discrepancy with the citizens. The citizens have the impression (a rather justified impression) that their leaders act more as « representatives of the EU » than as « representatives of their interests at the EU level » but at the same time are incapable of representing their own expectations concerning what they consider should be a « common European political vision ». In other words, the citizens expect their politicians to show a capacity of influencing a « machine » more and more alien to them.

This crisis does not affect politicians solely. It has become the symptom of a larger-ranging crisis involving the State itself and its administration; a situation resulting from the emergence of a single class of “Eurocrats” indifferently belonging to both European and national administrations.
For one decade at least, the European Commission – with the (often unaware) complicity of the member states – has undertaken to « shape up » its interlocutors in each capital. Year after year, regardless of ministry or commissioner changes, the Commission services have conducted a « long march » aimed at favouring the promotion of the most docile of our national civil servants. This is particularly true in the new member states where the Commission’s influence is at a maximum. However in the other member states too these developments have taken place.

The method is double-fold: the Commission complains about the lack of sense of “cooperation” of a civil servant, about his “lack of European spirit”; or on the opposite highlights “the quality of the work achieved”,… This way, little by little, if member states are not careful about it, a process of external “reshaping” of the ministry services in charge of European affairs develops… In the field of communication, this trend has taken an even greater importance; indeed with the « co-financing » system set up for national communication campaigns on Europe, the Commission has become a partner of all decision-making processes. Depending on the level of proximity between a Ministry’s EU communication teams and the Commission’s services, the latter sometimes reaches the point of putting its veto on some type method or operator; or on the contrary of recommending successfully this or that partner or method. Recently these developments have started having some influence on carrier processes within national ministries in fields related to EU affairs.

{{ {{{
Putting an end to the « brusselisation » of national communication policies on the EU}}} }}

Even in the case such developments would serve the European Union, its image and its relation to the citizens, there would be a lot to say about such confusion and weakening of State legitimacy and representativity. But they go against these aims. The Commission imports in national contexts methods that failed at a trans-European level: costly and inefficient strategies implemented in partnership with « friendly » organisations and companies, marginalisation of national expertise and experience in terms of communication, rejection of operators known to be « critical » to the Commission, worsening of the disconnection from the citizens,… This defines what could be called a « brusselisation » of communication strategies on Europe. For this reason, as part of a D strategy, Europe 2020 invites the Member States to re-evaluate their teams in charge of handling the European processes and to ensure that all members of these teams are really there to represent their country’s interests within the European process, and not the contrary (they can otherwise become European civil servants). Contrary to a preconceived idea largely shared among the European circuits, the EU does not grow from States’ weakening; in fact the European game gains in quality and interest from the strengthening of all the players. That’s precisely the sense of the message sent by the peoples in the last referenda.

The “de-brusselisation” of EU communication policies implies in particular a much firmer attitude on the part of member-states as regards languages. EU democratisation requires to get rid of the myth of a single vehicular- language for the EU (English, French or any other) and on the opposite to energize all tools and channels likely to help the European debate to be held in each citizen’s tongue… otherwise there will be no debate but merely an institutional monologue that won’t be understood by 90% of EU citizens (3). Even worse, the EU system will continue to develop an increasing autism as they will deprive themselves from the linguistic channels that can enable them to perceive, analyse, understand and take into account the expectations of citizens and peoples. The growing monolingualism of the European institutions represents a lethal risk for both the European project and EU democratisation.. It is therefore a duty for our national politicians and civil servants to force the EU to elaborate a general strategy and an internal/external practice of multilingualism, otherwise communication between elites and citizens will fail to exist.

In conclusion, Europe 2020 would like to insist on the idea that most of the « D for Democratisation » strategy will take place outside the institutions. In the years to come, and with the 2009 European elections as major milestone, it is based on European civil society and on the emergence of new media and political parties that EU democratisation will develop. As regards the institutions, the question is in fact quite simple: if they want to survive to this historic transition phase, they will have to adapt to this new stage of the European process and to accompany the developments going on among the European society. If they don’t, they will disappear or be limited to secondary missions.

If this paper was to be summed up to three tangible advices (one per major institution), these would be:
. to the Commission: give up transversal communication on Europe; concentrate your efforts on each of your sectoral policies and turn their « beneficiaries » into « partners»
. to the Council: recover control of your national communication policies on Europe; concentrate them on civil society and make your decision-making processes in this field more transparent to the citizens
. to the European Parliament: take control of the transversal EU communication policies; and invest into trans-European political campaigns and into the development of multilingual and institution-free trans-European media

As to the rest, trust the European citizens in developing a « D for Democratisation » strategy: democracy may be the business of the institutions, but democratisation is first of all the business of citizens and peoples.


1. To recognise them, nothing easier: they are those who will applaud both hands to the next version of the « new communication strategy » that the Commission wont’ miss to release in the coming weeks.

2. Though this is not the aim of this paper, Europe 2020 would like to remind that the development described above is not a recent one and was already underlined in 1999 (at the time of the crisis opened by the resignation of the Santer Commission) in the series of anticipation seminars “How to manage the EU in 2020?”. The absence of any significant internal reform ever since has strengthened the tendency within the Commission to envisage communication in terms of « propaganda » on its own action. The policy conducted by the Secretary General, David O’Sullivan, (real master aboard the Commission, supported by a large part of the Commission’s top administration) mostly concerned by hushing up scandals, eliminating critics and independent voices, and selecting Brussels’ relays upon the sole criterion of their « docility », has worsened an already critical situation as well as the Commission’s credibility as actor/vector of communication. The deliberate move of the institution to “all-English” has achieved to cut it from the European public opinion. Finally, the Commission’s political choices, ranging from Turkey to Bolkestein, are clearly rejected by EU populations. The question of the political future of this institution is therefore open as well as the centrality of its role in the communication policy on Europe.

3. For instance, one should be aware that any future trans-European political party or media will face a simple reality: 1 EU citizen out of 5 speaks German as his mother-tongue. For a political party to win a trans-European election or for a media to cover the entire continent, German has to be one of its major communication languages. One hundred million potential voters/readers are worth a lot more than Brussels’ few thousands of French/English speakers}

About Marie Hélène

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