As a project, the EU has been fairly successful, although as a brand, it is an utter failure. What is the reason for this contradiction?
The much-debated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was surely right. Ironically enough, not exactly the way he wanted to be. When evaluating the EU presidency of Hungary, he stated that for the opposition Socialists, the European Union is “a matter of belief,” but for the governing Fidesz, it’s simply “a matter of reason.” Mr. Orbán would most probably be offended if he was called a great branding expert, but still, he nailed it. He highlighted a sad fact: so far the EU is a much better product than brand.
As a project, the EU has been fairly successful. For more than half a century, it has prevented leaders from slaughtering their own people or raiding their neighbors. It also gave us freedom to travel with just ID cards in our pockets and the possibility to import vast amounts of cheap Slovakian milk. All in all, it does quite well what it was originally designed for.
But however great the product, so far the EU as a brand is an utter failure. The general public feels very little, if anything, towards it. Every proper brand elicits some kind of emotion, even if they are only as functional as washing powder. But when it comes to the EU, even hatred is rare, not to speak of love.
Recent official data show that 7 out of 10 EU citizens know “nothing or very little” about this behemoth. “This is not a sound basis for public engagement,” as a commissioner of the previous Barroso Commission put it once, kindly understating how little anyone cares. The EU is about as interesting as the health care system’s computer network. We know it exists, we know it does things and we know that’s all we want to know.
There are a number of ways to change this, all of which are carefully avoided. The obvious one would be giving the union a face. The position was allegedly created last year by the Lisbon Treaty, but even hardcore news junkies would be in trouble if they had to name the EU (Council) president, and not only because the name of Herman Van Rompuy is hard to pronounce.
Another option would be to authorize EU bodies to decide directly over more things that affect citizens’ everyday lives – to do things that can be described to the average housewife in an eight-second TV sound bite.
The third way to go would probably be the most realistic one – keep all EU operations as they are now, but move at least a finger when it comes to communicating it to citizens. No one will make the effort to dig up reasons to like the EU until it starts coming up with them itself.
I don’t mean painfully direct ways and blunt propaganda. I especially don’t mean TV ads of Czech and Portuguese children holding hands and running together towards a better future in the sand. TV ads have the tendency to cost a crazy sum of money and leave decision makers with the feeling that engaging citizens is taken care of for another decade.
But I do mean press releases that honestly explain a decision’s relevance. I mean hiring spokespeople who don’t look like they were born in filing cabinets. Commissioners leaving their Brussels fortresses and turning up in national parliaments, so at least we knew they actually exist. Finding a voice to talk to citizens. I also mean highlighting progress and proudly taking credit for it. And I do mean uploading the budget in my own language, because making it available in English only is an insult.
Of course, this can and will still be considered by some as propaganda. But given the lack of wide-reaching European media, national elites don’t want the EU to seem as strong as it actually is.
The first Barroso administration in 2004 seemed to set about this task. It created the Communication strategy portfolio and appointed Margot Wallström to handle it. She became the first of five vice-presidents, which tells something about the original ambitions. She hoped to have visible results in a second term, but in 2010, the portfolio was dropped instead. Communication now belongs to the thrillingly sounding Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration Commissioner’s duties, and any plans have yet remained a secret.
EU-critical groups already urged a halt when Ms. Wallström still claimed she hadn’t even started properly yet. A think tank estimated that the EU’s PR machine burned €2.4 billion in 2007 alone, outspending Coca-Cola on a global scale.
These groups called for transparency and honest debates instead. They were right in their premise: there are a lot of things the EU does wrong as a result of ill-advised plans and flawed compromises. But the point that they have missed was that closing the EU’s mouth shut doesn’t help with the change they stand for – it only conserves the lack of public interest. Wrapping everything in blue every five years before the European Parliament elections, hoping that maybe at least 40% of the electorate turns up to vote seems to be not very efficient.
If it continues like this, your mother will never like the EU because the EU doesn’t want to be liked at all. Unfortunately, it is happy on its gray, bureaucratic and sometimes intransparent own.
Zsombor Pál is a former journalist and copywriter, currently working for a multinational company.