by Katie Low*
What is the best way to share information about the European Union's institutions and activities with a diverse, diffuse and often uninterested public? This question, regularly posed over the past few decades, has in recent years come to be asked with ever increasing desperation. Bernd Spanier's study, Europe, anyone? The 'communication deficit' of the European Union revisited, was published in 2012 and is based on a dissertation submitted in 2010, but many of the observations it makes are still highly relevant, perhaps even more so, in 2016.
Not that the EU's problems began this year, of course. The wide-ranging chapter that follows the introduction to this work is a excellent summary of the major setbacks that beset the Union between the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the global financial problems of the late 2000s. The account of the Greek debt crisis can follow events only as far as 2011, but Spanier's description of how referenda in the Netherlands and France stood in the way of the European Constitution's ratification in 2005 is very instructive. This section includes some trenchant remarks on the unsuitability of popular votes in individual countries for deciding wider European issues, and his conclusion in passing that such votes 'can be problematic when member states which usually adhere to a representative model of democracy suddenly resort to direct, plebiscitary models whenever fundamental decisions about Europe are to be taken' (p. 31) looks all too appropriate today.
After this introduction to key problems faced by the EU at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, Spanier surveys key milestones in the institutions' efforts to communicate in the same period, in particular the Commission's 2005 White Paper on Communication Policy that proposed a move from institution-centred to citizen-centred communication, and the Parliament's 2006 Herrero Report, in which the need to improve levels of EU knowledge amongst citizens was underlined. He then examines the notion of the 'democratic deficit' and different perspectives on the idea of a European Public Sphere, and the implications of all this for disseminating information widely, before considering intrinsic features of the EU's workings that further complicate the process of communicating about its work (such as ministers in Council meetings agreeing on an unpopular policy for which they 'blame Brussels' on arriving home) and the small number of media outlets that report from a pan-European perspective. Although EurActiv does feature, the internet does not receive a lot of attention here or elsewhere in the text; this is presumably due to Europe, anyone?'s necessarily limited scope and the time when it was written (any similar work conceived today would no doubt focus predominantly on not only online news and opinions but also social media; the final paragraph of this one does, at least, look forward to the future importance of 'electronic mass media', p. 154). It may also be relevant that the European institutions have historically not shown much creativity in their use of the internet to communicate with citizens.
Finally, Spanier looks at a key point of interaction between the institutions and the media: the Commission's spokespersons. A (rather dense, but still cogently explained) section in which the author works out a theoretical model for political communication in the EU is followed by a case study that presents interviews with spokespersons. This is where the book's origins as an academic thesis are most clearly apparent, but the chapter offers some fascinating insights into the spokespersons' views of their function and how it could be carried out more effectively (several of the interviewees are said to have suggested that the Commission be more political in its communications, an interesting foreshadowing of the Juncker Commission). Nevertheless, Spanier concludes by arguing that the EU's 'communication deficit' is not due to one single factor: defective institutional policies, the inevitable primacy of internal political communication in Member States, and the sheer complexity of the EU and what it does all play a part. It is hard to disagree with his conviction that more effective relations between the institutions and the media, leading to greater visibility for the EU in news reports, and also higher profiles for top officials and leaders (rather than communications initiatives managed by the institutions themselves) are likely to go some way to closing this deficit. This is not least as some of these developments have begun to occur since the book's publication
While Europe, anyone? is a specialist book, it is accessible and likely to be of more general interest: it moves fast and explains clearly (as I noted above, parts of the work would serve as a fine general introduction to the EU's vicissitudes in recent years and, while some sections are more theoretical than others, they do not become so to the point of obscurity). It is of course not completely comprehensive. In addition to the lack of emphasis on the internet, I also felt that some discussion of the enlargements of the 1990s and 2000s, and the challenges and opportunities these presented for EU communication, would have been welcome, and apart from one quoted interview with a spokesperson (p. 141) I found no explicit reference to the difficulties of having to translate messages into more than 20 languages. Still, this work is an eloquent reminder that the battle to communicate the EU to the citizens of Europe is very far from over.
* Katie Low has an academic background (she holds a doctorate in Classics from the University of Oxford) but she has also worked in the Department of Communications in a European institution and takes a keen interest in the Brussels media scene.