A European Way of Life? Forum in Innsbruck Examined Ways of Communicating European Issues

bridges vol. 12, December 2006 / OpEds & Commentaries

by Raoul Kneucker

The "American way of life" versus the "European way of life"? The "American way" might be waning, but is the "European way" gaining? Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, EU council chairperson in 2006, insisted that something specifically European - similar to the "American way of life" - would help to create a European identity and would promote European emotions in shaping the rational and utilitarian European politics. Her view is generally accepted. Having avoided or neglected a discussion on values that would constitute a genuine European Union - i.e., a "united" Europe "reconciled in diversity" - the "Economic Community" having gradually been transformed into a Political Union, cannot be transformed into something resembling a Wertegemeinschaft [community of values] or a true European Union.

This summer, a group of political science students that participated in the seminar "Communicating Europe" at the Leopold Franzens University in Innsbruck, Austria, decided to organize a public symposium to specifically address the question of how European citizens perceive the European Union and its policies. The symposium was well attended with some 220 persons including Heinz Fischer, President of the Republic, Herwig van Staa, the Tyrol governor, and the deans and the rector of the university, and all participated in lively discussions throughout the symposium.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} The Copenhagen Criteria, the Constitutional Treaty - and a Communication Problem?
The present criteria for EU membership, the "Copenhagen Criteria" or values such as democracy, rule of law, and human rights, refer to shared European values at home in the Member States more than to the values of a common European constitution. The European Constitutional Treaty was rejected in the Netherlands and France, possibly just because the citizens had missed the "value discussion." Waldemar Hummer, law professor at Innsbruck University and one of the expert speakers at the symposium, called the Constitutional Treaty "false labelling": It is not a constitution in the traditional sense; by and large, it borrowed human rights from the existing European consensus already reached under the European Human Rights Convention; and it compiled the various treaty regulations into one treaty, only marginally improving the operational mechanisms, and not providing solutions to the principle political questions of the Union. Are the mechanisms appropriate for promoting European integration? Do the European citizens share the views of their governments which - so far - refuse to change their present treaties and their division of responsibilites and legal competences, or refuse to to add more federal elements to the existing ones? Probably they do not.

A "Plan D" for Meeting the Communication Challenge of the EU

Margot Wallström, vice president of the European Commission responsible for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, presented in 2006 to the European public the so-called "Plan D" for coping with the European communication challenge. Unfortunately, due to travels to Poland, she was not able to attend the symposium in person.

Wallström's "Plan D," D standing for (more) "dialogue," for (more effective) "debates," and for (generally improving) "democracy" on a European level, formed the basis of the work of the students.

Coming from different disciplines, interdisciplinary approaches characterized the work of the students in the seminar preceding the symposium. Each expert statement in the symposium was followed by a contribution of seminar participants or by panels of politicians and students on the topics of political psychology, political science proper, European law, mass media and communication theory, and marketing.

Marketing the European Idea?
To use marketing as an approach turned out to be a novel way of looking at "Communicating Europe." Prima facie, Plan D follows the usual paradigm of European actions: setting goals, designing measures to realize them, and creating instruments for implementing goals and measures.

Among the symposium participants, a passionate group refuted the very idea of marketing for any democratic decision making; they do not want Europe to be seen as a "product" or "service." Yet, this analysis from the angle of marketing proved useful, particularly as Plan D itself wishes to be taken as a marketing instrument, even if making marketing mistakes. Florian Kurzthaler, a participating student of psychology and economics, criticized Plan D from the viewpoint of business administration and marketing expertise. Measures and instruments, for example, are not clearly distinguished. Some measures will likely be inefficient; for instance, national politicians who should demonstrate a commitment to Europe will always legitimize their activities to national constituencies that vote for them, or media will change neither their styles nor types of reporting simply because Plan D requests them to do so. Some measures are absent altogether: for example, explaining the complex structures of the treaties or the "value added" through European integration.Therefore, the students proposed "real" European media and a European News Room in Brussels.

Information doesn't equal communication
The European Commission publishes many brochures, leaflets, and posters each year; an Internet portal is available, several data banks can be consulted. There is no lack of information. National information campaigns were added to those of the Commission. However, information is not sufficient for communication - a rather banal tenet of human relations. Information is unilateral and sometimes arrogant. Information campaigns cannot do the job even if they reach many citizens: Grasping the structures and mechanisms of the European Union requires experts or learning comparable to that of "students" of political science. The Union is the result of European governmental politics, a perfect mirror of the European political situation. How can the average person understand this multilayered structure of national and European levels, or subsidiarity and divided responsibilties, or tedious and long-winded instruments of coordination, or regional collaborations within national and European actions, or matters considered "European"? To help the participants understand the difficulties, the symposium discussed such technicalities as budgets and relations between Council and Parliament.

During the preparation seminar before the symposium, a group of students also interviewed young people between 16 and 18 years of age who attend Innsbruck secondary schools. They felt frustrated when the interviews revealed the misunderstandings and cliches expressed by the parents of the interviewed students, generated by national politicians and local media.

Parents and politicians do speak about European affairs, but do not explain or argue positions in the way they are forced to do on national issues. Statistics show a very different picture, however, when young people 25 years and over are interviewed. They accept that Europe is theirs and that Europe will be integrated; they are impatient about the slow progress and like the prospect of a united Europe.

As long as political parties and national parliaments do not include European politics and policy making in their regular agendas, communicating Europe will remain a distant political idea, and decisions of European bodies will continue to surprise the citizens adversely when - without prior preparation and understanding - they suddenly realize that European decisions do affect their daily lives.

The boundaries between internal and foreign policies have become blurred, in general and in European affairs: What is national influences European politics, and vice versa. Learning processes occur for the benefit of changing national practices, or new standards are jointly set. Politics of the Member States in many instances do not simply represent national interests but, at the same time, promote European development; many national policies and activities therefore demonstrate intra- as well as inter-European effects. The Member States are committed to balancing both their own interests and the European goals.

Not all topics necessary to political science teaching are suitable for a public symposium. "Communicating Europe" certainly was.

For further information, please visit the website
<http://www.communicating-europe.com >


The author, Dr. Raoul Kneucker, is a professor honoris causa at the Institute of Political Sciences at the Leopold Franzens University in Innsbruck, Austria.