This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable ‘Communicating Europe’ at the cycle’s Launch Conference. By Miguel Alegre, 89er & delegate to the Tackling Populism Launch Conference.
In June 2016, the European project suffered a considerable blow. Britain decided to leave the European Union, and the dream of an ‘ever closer union’ between the peoples of our continent is now widely challenged and contested. With the rise of populist movements in a number of different countries, the very existence of the EU is increasingly being put into question. What can the 1989 Generation do to stall the emergence of nationalism, extremism and xenophobia?
Fact versus fiction
We believe that identity and communication are crucial to explain the growing forces of anti-European sentiment. On the one hand, many European citizens do not feel particularly European. Their identities are often framed along national lines, and there is usually a belief that a national identity is somehow incompatible with a European identity. The EU is felt as something ‘foreign’, which delegitimises it as a political community. On the other hand, European citizens often fail to understand what the European Union is and what it does. This is fundamentally a problem of communication. Tabloid media has a proclivity to propagate falsehoods about European institutions and contributes to the growing divide between perception and reality as far as EU politics are concerned. While there might be a few thousand voters who dislike what the EU is, there are certainly millions who despise what they believe the EU to be.
In the context of the Identity & Communication Roundtable, we discussed many of the problems and challenges regarding the improvement of the EU’s communications strategy. Part of the problem is that our conclusions are difficult to translate into neat policy proposals, for we are addressing an issue in which a number of different actors & interests are involved. From different EU institutions themselves to national and regional actors, from the media to grassroots movements, from campaigns to individuals, we need to come up with solutions that are somehow coherent but also specific and localised. Top-down approaches to communication often result in failure, and are subject to accusations of ‘propaganda’. A deeper understanding of the localised nature of communication would be helpful at the EU level, following as it should the fundamental principle of subsidiarity.
It is clear to us the need to beat the populists at their own game, and that overly technocratic and rationalised messages should best be avoided. Identity-building narratives that bring emotion and humanity into the realm of politics are profoundly necessary, now more than ever. Having more visible European voices in national politics is also something that we advocate. Whether that means politicising EU representatives in member-states or empowering grassroots activists is something to be discussed. One of the challenges is that populist movements have identifiable leaders that often have a degree of charisma, whereas truly pro-European voices with an enthusing and appealing message are often hard to find in the media.
Europe is more than Brussels
National actors – if they want the project to survive – should not fall into the populist trap of scapegoating ‘Brussels’ for what they themselves have often decided in the European Council. This scapegoating is made easier by the fact that ‘Brussels’ seems to be speaking with one voice, thus fostering a certain dichotomy between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Acknowledging the existence of alternatives within a framework of pro-Europeanism by politicising the discussions and communications of, say, the European Parliament would undermine this perceived dichotomy.
The lack of a European public sphere and the marginal nature of European affairs in national public discourse are also problems to be addressed. The transnational connections that, counter-intuitively, populist movements have established in recent decades, drawing on each other’s successes and victories, have conversely no parallel in the pro-European side of the argument. In the sphere of information, there is much to be done in terms of increasing readership and viewership of pan-European media networks and in terms of including European themes into national news. Discussion of such themes should be such that what the EU does and what a particular national government does become complementary rather than opposing narratives.
Pop culture and social media as major factors
In the realm of culture, communication means explaining ourselves to one another. It means going beyond the fast-paced nature of political information. Consumption of American mass-culture ought to be reduced by popularising exchanges of commercial films, documentaries, series and so on across Europe, through both traditional media and the internet. The role of the entertainment industry in shaping identities cannot be neglected. As such, building a system of transnational flows and exchanges that encompasses both the national and also regional levels is of crucial significance.
The fundamental importance of social media in modern-day (political) life was one of the other themes addressed in the roundtable. IT consultancy has had an essential role in influencing the outcomes of recent elections. Targeting swing voters by combining psychological models and empirical data on social media profiles has proved to be tremendously successful in recent years. Digital marketing allows for the creation of context-specific content that is more and more specific and localised. Capitalising on this technological progress – as populists already have – would surely strengthen the pro-European movement.
At an individual level, we stressed the importance of civil, social or political engagement. Our reflection has to go beyond defining macro-policy suggestions and corporate recommendations to the media and other relevant communication actors. Committed citizens and Europeans are needed now more than ever, and they are the drivers of real change. Involvement with campaigns, movements and organisations, on the one hand, and leaving one’s comfort zone by speaking with, engaging with and challenging populist friends and acquaintances, on the other, can be incredibly helpful in tackling populism. It is the peace and prosperity of our continent that is at stake, so we all personally can and should do more!
Photo by Mihai Simionica