March 20, 2015
Guest blogpost by Ewoud Lauwerier, researchers at the University of Lausanne writing a PhD on the democratic legitimacy of the EU.
In order for the EU to escape the spiral of negativity that surrounds it and to become again a cause worth believing in, it should refocus its story on why it is, rather than on what it is.
Probably more than any other political authority in Europe, the EU explains what it does and how it functions. Time and time again the successes and merits of Europe are brought forward; and numerous communications provide information on the EU’s daily operations. And yet, no other political authority in Europe seems to be more questioned than the EU. Cranked up by nationalist and populist parties, an EU-critical discourse finds approval with large parts of the population and nobody seems to know exactly how to turn the tide. Neither the countless leaflets and you-tube videos nor the explanatory notes all over the EU websites seem to convince the general public of the EU’s added value. The European institutions can well launch yet another initiative aiming to restore public approval of the European Union; it does not seem to make a difference.
How this is possible? How it is that all the efforts to sell the EU do not convince such large parts of the people to buy it? The ideas of the American author Simon Sinek could probably provide us with the elements of explanation. Reflecting upon the dynamics of inspiring leadership, he demonstrates how successful endeavors have in common that they emerge from the fundamental question of “Why”. Applying this idea to today’s Europe could tell us that the EU does not convince, not so much because it is not known what it does or what it is, but because it is ignored why it exists in the first place.
At the beginning of the integration project, it was clear what Europe stood for. As a direct reaction on the terrors of two devastating wars, European unification had a clear purpose; to prevent such events from ever happening again. Europe was a symbol of peace and a cause worth believing in. Although there certainly were disagreements about how European integration should be realized or what exactly European cooperation should look like, there was a shared belief about why more Europe was necessary. Nowadays, Europe’s fundamental reasons seem much less evident. Peace, of course, is still called upon as an argument for Europe’s existence; but for generations who never actually knew war it lost its strength as a self-evident reason, justifying on its own the existence of today’s EU. An updated, appealing purpose fails however to emerge, or more precisely, fails to be clearly communicated.
As a responsible and democratic polity, the EU must indeed act in an open and transparent manner. Informing the public about what it does and how it does it are in that sense of course valuable and even necessary exercises. But, as the epitome of an audacious project of cooperation and integration between peoples and countries, the EU will not convince the heart of the people on dry facts alone.
EU initiatives such as Setting the Facts Straight are in that sense well-meant but rather pointless exercises, when standing on their own. Explaining for instance why allegations about the EU’s excessive budget or its vast bureaucratic apparatus are bending the truth does not as such justify why, after all, there should be a European budget or a European bureaucracy; i.e. why there essentially should be a European Union. Besides, such truth telling initiatives – as there are also the Euromyths blog or The Budget explained: myths and facts – are very much characteristic for the EU’s current public communication strategy. Rooted in a wrongly conceptualized defensive approach, the EU puts itself with these initiatives automatically in the position of the underdog which, defied by Euro critical voices, seems unable to define its own story. Yet, rather than losing itself in a fundamentally unequal fight against a continuous stream of (quite often unbalanced) criticism, the EU should retake the initiative of its own image.
By no longer framing its existence around what it does or how it does it, but around why it does so; the EU could also escape from a precarious situation in which each criticism –justified or not – easily equates an existential assault on the principle of European cooperation itself. Economic crisis, social turmoil, recurring political instability, ongoing administrative inertia or general discontent with the direction of public decisions; it upsets the people; make them call for change; though it does not make them doubt the existence of their country as such. With the exception of Spain, Belgium or the UK, none of the EU Member States is questioned in its fundamental existence. In case of the EU however, vexation about Brussels decisions or disagreement with the way EU-governance functions seems easily to lead to an abandoning of European integration all together. Where states have the advantage that in today’s world they are generally seen as natural facts whose evident claim for existence stands beyond any doubt, the EU – as a new and somehow difficultly definable entity – does not (yet) have such self-evidence. Hence, more than its member states, the EU will have to justify itself. To that end, the story of an appealing cause, an inspiring dream will in the long run prove much more expedient than a mere repeating of EU policy-facts and governance-figures.
A dream revised
Convinced of its purpose as a peace insurance in Europe and beyond, as a way to preserve and improve living standards and as the best means to defend shared values and common interests in an increasingly globalized world; the EU has to reclaim itself as the manifestation of an idea worth fighting for. By proclaiming these essential reasons to be the motivation for its existence, Europe can become an inspiring vision again, a vision people can belief in and care about.Blogactiv Team