Europe's Public Relations "The EU Lacks a Story"

The European Union has long suffered from a negative public image. Too big, too complicated, too bureaucratic. But Margot Wallström, European Commissioner for Communications, wants to change that. She told SPIEGEL ONLINE how.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How often do you update your blog?

Wallström: I try to post something twice a week. It's more interesting if one can keep it current. But I don't always find the time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is this part of the "fundamentally new approach" that you announced to make the EU more attractive to Europeans?

Wallström: Yes, if you like. It makes us inhabitants of Planet Brussels more human. When I started the blog two years ago, it attracted a number of lunatics, but now there is a healthy debate. It is important not only to inform people, but also to listen to them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In October 2005, after the EU constitution failed in referenda held in France and the Netherlands, you announced a new communication strategy called "Plan D." In February 2006, your Commission followed with a White Paper. What are you trying to achieve?

Wallström: Communication in the EU has long been a one-way street. The Commission made laws first and informed the citizens afterwards. We didn't listen enough to the citizens. With Plan D we are trying to create a European public sphere. We have to better anchor European debates in the parliaments and media of the member states.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So far, it doesn't seem to be working. The Eurobarometer indicates that the EU's negative image is relatively stable. Less than half of the population seems to trust EU institutions.

Wallström: I wouldn't have expected things to change within just one year. We are still in consultations on the White Paper. This week we hold another big conference about communication in Berlin, before the Commission comes up with recommendations for a new communication policy in March. So far we have mainly worked within the institution. We are constantly improving our Web site. We involve all the different Directorates General. And now we also offer abstracts of all proposals in simple language that everyone can understand.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For years the EU has pledged to become more accessible and user-friendly. So far though, it hasn't happened.

Wallström: That's not true. We listen very closely to citizens' concerns. Take last week's decision of the Commission to break up the energy monopolies for example. That clearly shows that we put the concerns of EU citizens on top of the agenda. Electricity prices, roaming fees, passenger rights – all these discussions are likewise the result of Plan D.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Since the French and Dutch rejected the constitution, the Commission has become more self-critical. On the other hand, Barroso warns that the EU should not sell itself short. He says the EU is better than its reputation. Which is it?

Wallström: Above all, we have to deliver positive results. The times are over, when the European project was reserved for a small political elite. We need the support of the people and a democratic structure. That is the main challenge facing communication policy: To see everything from the perspective of EU citizens. People have a right to know, they have a right to speak out, and they have a right to be heard as well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If I may, that sounds like more Brussels lip-service. Real civic participation is not part of the EU design.

Wallström: That's why it is so important that member states listen to their citizens. Political participation works through national parties and parliaments. Ministers should talk about the European project and defend it on a daily basis. There are more and more issues that nation states cannot solve on their own. We cannot continue this game whereby national governments treat Brussels as the scapegoat and EU institutions blame each other for unpopular decisions. The blame game must cease.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Most people know the EU only from TV. They see reporters standing in front of huge glass buildings, interviewing unknown politicians and explaining highly complex laws. Could it be that the EU is simply an unsellable product?

Wallström: The EU is not a product. It is a political arena with its own problems -- just like the UN. But it offers a good way of reaching decisions. You don't have to love it, but you should respect it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The architect Rem Kohlhaas once said the EU needs fresh symbols. He said it is not enough to put up posters with the face of Commissioner Wallström in the airports and promote border-free travel. Could the problem be a lack of creativity?

Wallström: When I started my job two years ago, I decided very early against the superficial -- let's call it American -- way: Make up a slogan, double the advertising budget and come up with a nice campaign. I prefer the more difficult path of actually changing structures. If you want a more democratic EU, communication has to be among its core tasks. There should be a legal foundation for it: Fifty years after the founding of the European project, communication belongs in the constitution.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Wallström: The EU lacks a story. For previous generations, the peace argument was a sufficient. But what story do I tell my 20-year-old son? How do I explain to him that we need the EU for the future?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Each member state seems to have a different answer.

Wallström: Some governments don't like the EU promoting itself at all. But in retrospect, the referenda in France and the Netherlands helped us very much. They showed that the European project cannot exist without engaging the citizens. First it came as a shock, but now we better understand what actually happened.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Barroso laments that the public image of the EU is marred by a number of myths -- the bureaucracy myth for example. But isn't that inevitable when people see 27 commissioners on EU photos? Wouldn't it be an important signal to reduce that number?

Wallström: No, because you lose in legitimacy what you gain in efficiency. It is so important that the commission is not just for the big member states. Already today, we commissioners are the faces of the EU in our respective countries. And there is enough work for all of us. The new Bulgarian commissioner for example is in charge of consumer issues. That is not a superfluous post, but a key task.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does your department expect from the German EU presidency?

Wallström: I hope that the education ministers make progress in their talks on civic education. We want to establish a college, where teachers can go for inspiration on teaching European issues.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some even demand a European core curriculum in politics, history and languages.

Wallström: There will never be an obligatory core curriculum, since that is the responsibility of individual member states. But we do want to foster the exchange of best practices among teachers. Every member state has realized that in order to fight Euro-skepticism, one has to start with the children.

Interview conducted by Carsten Volkery

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