Wednesday, 26 July 2006

I'm EU, You're EU


As its popularity flounders, the EU is focusing on “getting itself closer to the people” by, among other things, launching webcasts of its meetings, organizing cake-baking competitions, and attempting hostile takeovers of popular song contests. Not surprisingly, most of the EU’s public initiatives have enjoyed little success. For one thing, incoming and outgoing presidencies in the EU all have their own themes and PR objectives, complicating the creation of a cohesive image. No wonder that the holder of the most recent presidency, Austria, got to promote the image of “sexy Europe” by using racy images on publicity posters only to be followed by Finland’s current presidency, which is busy translating all of its EU-related documents into Latin. With the EU leadership acquiring a new identity every six months, who could be blamed for forgetting what it really stands for?

Unfortunately, it is not just the member states that are excessively creative in their communication endeavors. The public initiatives of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, are often as outlandish and uncoordinated. There is a special commissioner responsible for this—Margaret Wallström—who, judging by her blog, enjoys traveling around and preaching to the converted (meeting a bunch of Europhile students in a pub is one of her many contributions to fostering the public debate).

Then there is the recent initiative spearheaded by Günter Verheugen, the Commission’s vice president for Enterprise and Industry. He wants 350 of his senior civil servants to spend a week working for European small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), so that the bureaucrats can understand the real challenges those businesses face. He might have a point: the Commission’s employees should get first-hand experience of their regulations. As long as all of Verheugen’s staff do not end up making wine and cheese in Greece and Malta, this might be a useful exercise (although SMEs might prefer if all 350 simply were to disappear along with Verheugen for a week; seven days of no Brussels-sponsored regulation could add a percent or two to the EU’s sluggish economic growth).

But Verheugen intends to go beyond training by demonstrating that “Brussels doesn’t operate an ivory tower policy”. If so, why not also invite 350 heads of SMEs to come and spend a week in his office, too? Seeing what those 350 civil servants are up to and understanding why the quality of the SME legislation coming out of Brussels is so poor might save both sides a few headaches and curses.

Then there is the idea of broadcasting some EU meetings live over the Internet. Sounds nice in theory, but the content leaves a lot to be desired. For example, who on earth would want to watch a webcast of a meeting of EU finance ministers? According to the stats cited by the Agonist, only 14 people tuned in to watch the first 10 minutes of its live broadcast.

Instead, why not start screening the meetings of the head of state and government, where everybody could get a chance to listen to Jacques Chirac arguing for his vision of the European Social Model? I am sure millions will tune in (at least, everybody was delighted to hear the dialogue between Bush and Blair in Saint Petersburg, right?)

The European Parliament is of a different opinion, though. Its members want to institutionalize this experiment in must-avoid-TV by creating a special channel, which would broadcast over the Internet. According to Jan Mulder, a Dutch liberal MEP, “there is a lot of rhetoric on EU policies such as the common agricultural policy which is often portrayed as ‘devilish’…A web TV station would give MEPs the opportunity to present things in their context”.. Oh, now it is all clear: they want to set up a propaganda channel to promote outdated and dangerous EU legislation.

Well, soon there might be a new use for this TV channel: to broadcast the qualification rounds for the new Eurovision Song Contest. According to the reports in the British press, the Commission is discussing plans to take over the contest and use it for propaganda purposes next year.

It doesn’t seem to matter than the post-Communist member states are enraged at this repetition of the Soviet ritual of forced public performances. Nobody seems to mind that, however gross it is, the current Eurovision is a much truer reflection of the real Europe than the EU. Thus, I’ll be hardly surprised if for next year’s competition the Commission would ask the Turks, the Ukrainians, and the Russians to have their own Eurasiavision—after all, it would be awkward to have any of those three win a Europe-proper song contest, right?

The author is a TCS Daily contributing writer. He blogs at http://www.sharpandsound.com
This article first appeared on http://www.tcsdaily.com