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.