Archive for October, 2010
On Friday I was in Vienna to pick up an Erasmus EuroMedia Award for an e-magazine I edit on EU communications issues. It’s called Opinion Corner and is published by Mostra, a Brussels-based communications agency.
The latest edition of the magazine focuses on how the rest of the world views the EU and features interviews with Balkan musician Goran Bregovic, branding guru Simon Anholt and journalists, politicians and analysts in Moscow, Istanbul, Ankara, Washington DC, Brussels and London. We also carried out street interviews in Burkina Faso, Mexico, China and Egypt to find out what ordinary people make of the EU.
It may come as a surprise to Europeans – many of whom are lukewarm about the EU project and gloomy about its future prospects – to learn that the European Union is viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light across the globe.
In a poll carried out by Globescan for the BBC World Service in April 2010, citizens in all but two of the 28 countries surveyed said they had a mainly positive opinion about the EU’s influence in the world. Only Germany was judged more benignly in the poll, with 53% of respondents saying the EU had a ‘positive’ and 18% saying it had a ‘negative’ influence in the world.
A more recent poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2009 confirms the EU’s popularity worldwide – although public opinion is not as positive as the Globescan survey. Majorities or pluralities in 18 of the 25 countries surveyed said they had a favourable view of the European Union.
Before EU public relations folk crack open the champagne, they should remember that:
- This enthusiasm is coupled with widespread ignorance about what the European Union is and does.
- Much of the fuzzy feeling towards the EU is due to the fact that people see it as synonymous with the continent of Europe – which evokes images of wealth, beauty, culture and history.
- Support for the EU is haemorrhaging in the Wider Middle East. The five countries that view the Union most unfavourably – Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and Jordan – are all predominantly Muslim countries. In Pakistan, only nine percent of respondents said they had a positive opinion of the Union, according to the 2009 Pew poll. 72% of Jordanians and 57% of Palestinians said they viewed the EU unfavourably, despite the billions of dollars Brussels has pumped into the West Bank.
Foreign policy experts we interviewed in Washington DC, Moscow, London, Brussels and Turkey also had a much dimmer view of the EU than citizens. Among the criticisms levelled at the bloc are that it is obsessed by internal issues, projects a weak and ineffectual image, fails to live up to its high ideals and is incapable of communicating what it actually stands for. “The ability of the EU to project itself as a brand is quite pitiful,” says Martin Walker, Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council.
There was also a quasi-unanimous view that the Lisbon treaty has created more, not less confusion and that the appointments of EU president Herman Van Rompuy and foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton – two “unknown, uninspriring entities” according to the European Policy Centre’s Shada Islam – was a missed opportunity for the EU to raise its international profile. “The hope was that Lisbon would make the EU role in the world clearer,” says Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform in London. “That hasn’t happened.”
The EU still remains a good global brand. It is viewed positively by most citizens in most states. It is envied for its relative peace and prosperity and provides a model for regions seeking closer economic integration. Unlike Russia, China and the United States, it is viewed as a non-threatening actor on the international stage.
However, in recent years, the EU’s image has taken something of a knock as a result of the navel-gazing leading to the adoption of the Lisbon treaty and the confusion following it, the global financial crisis, Greece’s economic meltdown – and the EU’s belated attempts to rescue it – and the Union’s continued inability to punch its weight on the world stage. This lack of confidence is reflected in opinion polls, with the latest survey by Globescan showing a four-point drop in positive views towards the EU.
So what can be done to polish up the EU’s image abroad and improve the way it conducts public diplomacy? As the European diplomatic corps sets up shop, the experts we spoke to offered the following advice:
- Don’t be afraid to take hard decisions and use hard power. Says Valasek: “Foreign Policy is not a Eurovision Song Contest.”
- Align brand EU (boring, bureaucratic) much more closely with brand Europe (beautiful, buzzing.)
- Focus less on process and more on action.
- Communicate better abroad – send diplomats abroad who can engage with locals not just talk tariffs and quotas.
Ultimately the EU will be judged around the world for what it achieves, rather than how it communicates. But until the European Union learns to engage with citizens in language they can understand and relate to, few people will ever know what it does and stands for.
I have spent most of the week in Belgrade media training officials from assorted ministries and regional authorities. Of course, slick communications skills are no substitute for sound policies. But if ever there was a European country in need of better PR it is Serbia.
Tell anyone you’re going to this land-locked state and they will warn you to ‘be careful’ – as if it was still at war. In most people’s minds the former Yugoslav republic conjures up images of Balkan mayhem, riotous music and former dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who was ousted 10 years ago this month. One ministry official told me that on a recent visit to the United States a woman asked her what country she was from. When she said ‘Serbia’ the American replied: “I’m so sorry.”
Some of Serbia’s lousy PR is self-inflicted. It did cause havoc in the Balkans in the 1990s. It could have done more to bring alleged war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to justice. And its refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence – supported by an overwhelming majority of Kosovars – is seen by many as a refusal to accept reality.
Sunday’s bloody scuffles between neo-fascist thugs and police on the margins of Belgrade’s first gay pride parade in almost a decade will have reinforced many people’s beliefs that this volatile corner of south-east Europe is simply not ready for EU membership. The cancellation of a football match between Italy and Serbia Tuesday due to loutish behaviour by Serb hooligans has also not helped matters. “This is the Balkans, not Europe,” explained my taxi driver apologetically after talking at length about the incidents.
Well, yes and no. Serbia certainly is a Balkan country – and very proud of it. A T-shirt for sale on the Kneza Mihailova drag – Belgrade’s Ramblas – proclaims: “Fuck Coke, Fuck Pizza, We drink Slivovice.” On a street nicknamed ‘silicon valley’ peroxide women with too much make-up and too little clothes parade themselves in front of guys with bulging wallets and biceps. Turbo folk blasts out of the riverside barge clubs and mournful gypsy music from the tourist traps on Skadarska Street. Everywhere there is the same sweet smell of sweat, soot and sausages you find across this corner of Europe. Horns are beeped, arms are waved and decisions are delayed. “We still have a Turkish mentality,” says one woman, referring to the centuries of Ottoman occupation.
Serbia’s recent past has also cemented the idea that this country will be forever revolting, splintering, invading, sulking and scheming. “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume,” said Winston Churchill. In the last 20 years Serbia alone has witnessed conflicts with three of its neighbours, a civil war pitting Serb against Kosovar, NATO bombings – the effects of which are still very visible in downtown Belgrade – international isolation, hyper-inflation, the communist dictatorship of Milosevic, a quiet revolution to oust him, the assassination of its first prime minister and the break-away of Kosovo and Montenegro. “I survived two wars by my mid-twenties, so of course we’re happy to be at peace” my interpreter tells me.
So Serbia is very much part of the Balkans. But it is also a distinctly European country. Belgrade has a very central European feel to it with its grand boulevards, Habsburg buildings, Austro-Hungarian cuisine and pot-pourri mix of peoples. The people look European and act European, spilling out of cafes and clubs, smoking and drinking coffee, heading for trams and metros while arguing about the past. I certainly felt more at home in Belgrade than in Bucharest or Sofia – two existing EU capitals.
As Serbia busies itself for future EU membership – its application was tabled in December and candidate status is expected within a year – it deserves to be embraced by the international community. Hilary Clinton did just that during a visit to Belgrade this week. “The U.S. appreciates Serbia. Not only because of its outstanding history but, what’s more important because of its enormous potential,” said the Secretary of State. “We are absolutely convinced, not only that Serbia can become a member of the EU but also a leader in Europe.”
Of course there are potential roadblocks over the future status of Kosovo and the capture of Mladic. But these should not be insurmountable obstacles and they are much more likely to be solved by a Serbia on route to EU membership than by a country with its back turned to Europe.
I don’t watch much golf but I always make an exception for the Ryder Cup – the biennial tournament that pits Europe against the United States.
Most of the commentary this year has been about the lousy weather – although one wonders what the organisers were expecting when they decided to stage the competition in a river valley at the foot of a barren Welsh mountain in the beginning of October. I am from Swansea, 50 kilometres to the west. It is the wettest city in Britain. Living in Brussels feels positively balmy in comparison.
On one level the Ryder Cup is about a bunch of middle-aged men from one side of the Atlantic trying to put balls in holes in less shots than a bunch of middle-aged men from the other side. But on another, slightly more nerdy level, it makes an absolutely fascinating political spectacle.
For a start the European side has adopted the EU flag as its symbol – conveniently forgetting that almost half the countries of Europe are not are in the Union. Usually the only people you’ll see waving the EU flag voluntarily are young federalists and kids attending the European School in Brussels. But during the Ryder Cup, alongside the occasional Welsh, English or Spanish flag, the dominant symbol is dark blue with 12 gold stars on it. It is everywhere – on adverts, insignia and scoreboards and on players’ sweaters, baseball caps and jackets. The only times I’ve seen more European Union flags emblazoned on more people is on EU electoral observation missions in dodgy countries.
“Europe! Europe! Europe!” hollered fans at the Celtic Manor course outside Newport. OK, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” but it is quite staggering nonetheless. Although Wales has benefited mightily from EU largesse it is still in Britain – the EU’s most eurosceptic state.
One of the reasons former French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed UK membership of the then EEC in the 1960s was because he thought Britain would be a Trojan horse for the United States. And most continental Europeans I know still suspect that when push comes to shove Britain will instinctively side with America. They should watch more golf.
Another reason the Ryder Cup is intriguing is because it is the only sporting competition I can think of where Europe and the United States go head to head. Every Olympic Games, the European Commission puts out a rather redundant press release pointing out that EU states collectively win more medals than any other country. The problem is the EU is not a nation state but a collection of 27 of them all playing under different flags.
And so it should be. No one is seriously suggesting that Germany, Spain and England merge their football teams – although England may have more of a chance of winning a major tournament if they did. The UK can’t even manage to field a national rugby or football team, instead splintering into England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is nothing wrong with national pride – in sporting arenas or elsewhere. But just occasionally it is comforting to see that sport can unite Europeans as well as divide them. I always giggle when I see English football fans – not renowned for their love of the EU – cheering on ‘local’ teams like Chelsea and Arsenal that are almost entirely composed of European players (itself made possible by an EU ruling.) In terms of incongruity it reminds me of the 1990s when Man Utd fans would fly the French flag at Old Trafford in honour of Eric Cantona.
The Ryder Cup is the only major sporting competition where Europe plays as one and often wins as one – Monday’s narrow victory for the Europeans makes it six out of the last eight for the old continent. I don’t want to labour the political point here – it is just a game of golf after all – but it does add weight to the argument that when Europeans club together they can be world-beaters.