Presenting an EU less and less popular with its peoples – what is to be done? An opinion.
By Kevin Moloney 4.8.16; words 1,192.
The presentation of European and EU politics has changed much since the 1960s. Its style then was symbolized by the brevity and clarity of the single syllable ‘non’, spoken by the French President, Charles de Gaulle when he declared his veto of Britain’s application to join the EU’s predecessor, the Common Market in 1963 and 1967. The style was prophetic, magisterial, de haut en bas.
Today’s presentation of the EU by others and itself has erased the solemn. It is now, in part, workaday and tries witty word play for attention. Charles de Gaulle would not have approved. He would have banned ‘Quitaly’ and ‘Frexit’, the new shorthand monikers for Italy and France in the light of Brexit. Five weeks after the climacteric of June 23, the weekly politics journal New Statesman spotted Quitaly on the Internet while other wordsmiths dubbed Germany leaving as ‘Berlout’ and Poland as ‘Withdrarsaw’.
These word games are a jokey indication of current existential angst about the EU, a nervous condition brought to a head by the UK’s vote to leave. They are the opposite of magisterial; more de bas en haut; derisive. They are so difficult to parry because the joke is one of the most difficult communicative acts to disempower. The laugh will always devalue the speech for it produces a pure asymmetry of effects: the joke humiliatse; the speech educates.
What are other signs of unease? A statistical one, from the EU itself, is that polling between spring 2007 and autumn 2013 showed a decline of the feeling among EU Europeans that their country’s membership was a good thing. (see reference below). And this year (2016), EU watchers saw a UK referendum vote spilt of 52%/48% which makes Britons for Brussels a minority.
For the EU political class, the most dramatic evidence of angst was the fall of the British Cameron-led government less than 24 after the referendum. This made angst personal and swift, and transformed it into political extinction: within 24 hours of the referendum David Cameron was an ex-Prime Minister.
His mistake was to confuse party management with the national interest, for he calculated that the offer of a national referendum to the electorate would placate the 70 or so of his Tory MPs who are seriously Eurosceptic. He reckoned that the British electorate would back ‘remain’ and silence his party critics. He was wrong. And his career was over. The message to the political class is that its EU policy can now relate directly – negatively and positively – to domestic failure and success.
Outside of the UK, sudden removal such as Cameron’s is a rarity. But I argue that the mood of public opinion inside the EU is becoming more skeptical about ‘ever closer union’ and is making politicians more risk averse. The skeptical mood has also reduced the hopes of the European social democratic left that the EU is a vehicle for controlling capitalism, especially since the accession of the Central and Eastern European states from 2004.
What these states wanted – and still want – are infusions of capitalism into their political economies. From inside the Soviet bloc, they saw capitalism as the essential ingredient for economic growth. From inside the EU, they see it as the guarantee of higher living standards for their electorates.
That guarantee is weakening as the EU economy of 508m people stutters slowly forward. The CNN news channel notes that growth is lower than before the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and that 21 million Europeans are currently out of work. Its currency, the euro, has weak efficacy because its monetary functions are not underpinned by a common EU fiscal policy.
This calls, I argue, for a statist approach to political economies by introducing minimum wages throughout the EU to stop the decline in working and middle class incomes (a poll in May 2016 suggests that 64% of Europeans support a basic income); to increase public expenditure through higher taxation of the rich, and to halt the further expansion of the EU eastwards.
A June 2016 poll shows the EU is again experiencing a sharp dip in public support in some member states – just 27% of the Greeks, 38% of the French and 47% of the Spanish have a favourable opinion. Now is the time, I believe, for EU politicians and bureaucrats to remember the communication strategy of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s Great Depression: positive messages based on hope and economics that produces prosperity. Jokey word games have their place down page but are not headlines.
Such a strategy would dowse popular fears associated with the free movement of people. These fears are more weakening of support for the EU than lacklustre economics. A June 2015 poll suggested that a majority of Britons thought that there should be greater controls on the free movement of people between different EU countries. That figure was 58% and another 14% wanted no right to free movement.
Of the EU’s four founding policy pillars, free movement of people is the one most immediate in its personal effects on Europeans. And recent terror threats in Paris, Nice and Bavaria, and refugees arriving in Greece and Italy are wobbling its foundations. These events and their media reporting are converting, I argue, freedom to cross borders inside the EU into a contested and highly charged zone of presentation.
Today, economics, politics, personal fears combine to weaken an attractive presentation of the EU to its peoples. What is to be done? One response will be to resort to the tried and tested devices of public relations professionals. Witness the appearance of ‘New Deals’, such as the push for more sustainability by the EU Green Party in 2014 and in the same year, the call by the French President for a Keynesian New Deal for the flagging EU economy. This is another connection with the presentational values and techniques of the Roosevelt era.
Finally, as a Brexiteer, I hope that a political and economic New Deal for the EU will halt its weakening and will give it the matter for a rejuvenated presentation of itself. I judge that the EU will – in some messy, patched up way – survive. Good.
The statistical background to the opinions above is the EU Eurostat document eb40years_en.pdf. Below is its section about public opinion.
‘Between the spring of 2007 (before the start of the crisis) and the autumn of 2013, the feeling among EU citizens that their country’s membership is a good thing showed a general decrease, but remained above the 46% low point of 1997.
Although attitudes have become less positive in recent years, the changes have tended to be small, except in the Member States most affected by the crisis. The view that membership of the EU is a good thing declined most between 2007 and 2013 in Spain (47%, -26 percentage points), Greece (34%, -21) and Portugal (36%, -19).
In the same period, the most positive increases were in Sweden (64%, +14), Malta (64%, +13) and Finland (53%, +11).’