TCS Daily

Half-Baked Europe

By Gareth Harding - June 19, 2006 12:00 AM

The European Union will mark its 50th anniversary next year, but if the current malaise continues its celebration is more likely to resemble a wake than a birthday party.

The 25-member bloc has been in a funk since French and Dutch voters rejected a proposed EU constitution a year ago. Bad-tempered haggling over the Union's seven-year budget, sluggish economic growth, stubbornly high unemployment and open disagreement over how far and how fast to expand the club to the south and east have also soured the mood in Brussels.

Most European leaders meeting in the self-styled EU capital this week did not attempt to gloss over the crisis now facing the Union. "Europe is too present where it is not seen as useful or too absent where it is most needed," European Parliament President Josep Borell told heads of state. In a damning indictment of half a century of European integration, the Spaniard added: "Europeans can scarcely perceive the advantages of their Union. Europe is viewed less in terms of the advantages it brings, than the problems it creates or the solutions it fails to deliver."

There is, however, one EU institution that refuses to submit to the current vogue for Euro-pessimism: the European Commission. Its indefatigable leader, former Portuguese premier José Manuel Barroso, told reporters at the end of the meeting: "Europe is not in paralysis. It is moving and we are not going to slow down our movement."

The Commission, an unelected body of senior officials that has the sole right to propose new EU laws, has always been the cheerleader of European integration and it is not about to let mounting dissatisfaction with the Union get in the way of a good party. "After voters rejected a planned constitution, the European Union is turning to cake-baking competitions and cross-border song-and-dance parties to win the hearts and minds of skeptical citizens," reported Reuters last week.

These are some of the colorful ideas for reconnecting with disgruntled EU folk in a Commission document obtained by the news agency. Others include a new EU logo and theme tune, a Commissioners' Day and a kitsch pop extravaganza modeled on the Eurovision Song Contest. "We want to show the EU can dance," the report says, according to Reuters. An anonymous, presumably British, official is quoted as saying the aim is to make the Union "more punter-friendly" and to "show that the EU can be fun." Diplomats from some new member states are not so keen on the idea. "They feel people are being forced to dance and sing, like they were by the communists," said one.

The Commission certainly needs to improve its dire public image. Most people view the EU executive arm as an interfering busy-body fronted by overpaid and unaccountable officials with an obsessive interest in obscure rules and regulations. Barroso's team has made a start by focusing on concrete issues - like forcing mobile phone companies to cut extortionate roaming charges - rather than esoteric matters like institutional reform. But it's unlikely that cake-baking competitions, Europe-wide "Pop Idol"' imitations, street parties with children waving the EU flag and orchestras playing "Ode to Joy" - the Union's official anthem - will bring Brussels closer to its citizens or sex up its drab image.

The Union also needs to communicate better with the club's 450 million citizens. A recent opinion poll carried out by European Voice newspaper revealed that 82 percent of respondents thought EU institutions communicated poorly with them; anyone who has had the misfortune to listen to a speech by a European Commissioner will attest to the over-reliance on unintelligible Euro-jargon.

But even if the EU executive employed the canniest communications strategists and used the most cutting-edge technology to reach out to the public, it is doubtful it would succeed in winning over citizens that appear deeply skeptical about the Union's key policies. Many Europeans are lukewarm about the entry of ten new states in 2004 and downright hostile towards letting Turkey into the club; they found the draft constitution that was so roundly rejected by French and Dutch voters utterly unreadable; they cannot understand why Europe -- the world's biggest economic power -- is so weak on the world stage; they question why half the EU's $120 billion a year budget goes to farm subsidies although only 5 percent of the population work in agriculture; and they wonder what Brussels is doing to protect them against terrorist attacks, violent crime and job insecurity.

"How do we turn Frankenstein into Ursula Andress?" asked the Commission's chief spin-doctor Margot Wallström last year, referring to the James Bond starlet (she probably should have chosen a Bond babe from this century). Creating jobs, boosting growth and tackling insecurity is the distinctly unsexy answer; not having coffee and cake with cuddly commissioners, singing along to syrupy Irish folk singers and dancing to Albanian boy-bands dressed in sequined suits

Ultimately, the way ideas are presented to the public is important, but if the policies are poor, no amount of packaging will make them more attractive.

Gareth Harding is a writer based in Brussels.


1 Comment

half dresses Ursula
OK, maybe the EU half baked, but like Ursula Andress was hot when she was young, so was Europe. But now the EU is more like a lot of old women; fat, lazy, decadent, unable to defend themselves, etc. And now that more people die than are born in euroland, we certainly can see how this once proud civilizations is passing away. Of course the replacement populations is already in place, the muslims. And how did that one reporter put it; "it's just a matter of how bloody the transfer of real estate will be"?

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