Mathew Lowry

Is primetime TV advertising the right way to connect citizens to the EU?

Last week I saw and commented on an interesting blog post by Iveta Kazoka exploring one of the ‘broken channels’ which are supposed to link interested citizens to EU decision-making:

“The report uncovered an uncomfortable truth: few civic society organisations are capable of participating in shaping the national positions at a stage when the European Commission has already come up with a draft….”

The report does not cover all EU countries. If this has not been studied consistently across all Member States, it should be. Why? Because in every country where the above statement is true, people interested in a policy area can only conclude that the EU is out of touch and beyond their democratic control whenever EU legislation falls from the sky.

Iveta also mentions that those few CSOs that do participate:

“… tend to struggle… it is usually a challenge to find a list of EU issues where the national government is elaborating its national position [and] some governments … tend to view the draft national positions as confidential”

As I commented, back in 2011 I thought the yellow card procedure, brought in alongside ECIs, would help. However, as Iveta pointed in her reply, that does depend on whether the national parliament actually bothers with it. As far as I know, noone is even tracking this.

More to the point, it illustrates a fundamental problem. Almost all EU communications campaigns run from Brussels are framed to communicate a specific policy or programme, which is fine. But what’s missing is a long-term effort to improve the infrastructure to support healthy, multi-directional conversations across Europe. This infrastructure – the EU Public Sphere – would give those individual, policy-specific campaigns some sort of context, and allow EU-level debates to become transparent to interested people across the EU, not just those that know how to search EUR-LEX and tune into EuroParlTV.

Of course I’m simplifying – there is an infrastructure – but rather than reinforcing and deepening it, last week the emphasis appears to have shifted to putting 30 second ads on primetime TV:

As the young actor says at the end of each video, Wow. (To those who don’t watch Belgian TV, several of these ads are currently playing in primetime, just before and after the evening news. Go watch one).

It is surprising to see the EU do something so traditional. TV ads became mainstream in the 1950s, when Americans were captive to a handful of TV stations in their living rooms. While still a staple part of marketing, they have to compete in a very different landscape today. The EU could be telling true stories rather than obviously fictional ones, and could be experimenting with the huge variety of techniques, ranging from content marketing through to interactive data visualisation, developed over the past few years.

But it’s easy to sneer, so I won’t – I’m not the audience targeted by these ads, so maybe this is the right thing to do. The data will tell, presumably.

So I’ll leave the last words to my teenage, Belgian kids, who presumably are amongst the audiences targeted here. But what is it they are they trying to sell?, they asked me, and Why isn’t this money being spent on the projects?

Further reading

See also: storytelling (34 posts) on my TumblrHub public library.

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  1. Dear Matthew, thanks for this interesting perspective.

    Indeed the fact that Member States are barely pushed to publicise their position in Council negotations is a problem if the aim is to give citizens opportunities to react and participate. The recent Access Info Europe case addresses exactly this point, and theoretically has a very revolutionary potential (following this judgment, positions and proposals for amendments submitted by member states in legislative procedures should as of now be public as a matter of course).

    However, I do not have the impression that this potential is being fulfilled, and often documents are disclosed only after the work has been done and the Council has moved on. Besides this being the case, there is of course the question of who would use these documents to begin a public debate. Information is necessary, but not sufficient without publicity. See also a piece that I wrote earlier this year about this issue:

  2. Thanks for the comment, and for the heads-up re: Access info Europe case. I guess each national government is supposed to publish their positions and proposals for amendments on their national website, which I imagine means that the only organisations likely to make sure they do are national CSOs, media, etc.? And that, of course, falls foul of the chicken-and-egg problem: nobody knows about this because nobody cares, and nobody cares because nobody knows!

    As for who would use these documents: well, if anyone chases up the national government on these issues, then it’s because they want to have that debate – i.e., national CSOs and media.

    I really enjoyed your blog post about the hypocrisy of the Dutch government on the immigration issue, and was heartened to see that it was originally published in national media. But this sort of critique is always after the fact.

    To connect citizens to EU decisionmaking as it happens, to show them that their governments are involved in EU legislation, and to not let national governments ‘blame Brussels’ for decisions they had agreed to just months previously, national organisations have to know about and have reasonable access to the national government’s process.

    The thing is, these processes all take place at the same time across Europe, so a strong EU online public sphere would help – e.g., if a Dutch CSO was to hear from a counterpart in (say) Denmark that their government was undertaking a yellow card (subsidiarity check) procedure, for example, the Dutch would know that their government was probably doing the same thing, and could ask the right questions. The whole thing, in fact, could be crowdsourced by a few activists across Europe.

    The HashTag Europe project, come to think of it, would be an ideal platform for that knowledge flow.

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