The European Union has totally overslept the rise of anti-Europe sentiments. The EU not only needs to build a social Europe, it should finally start communicating how it improves the lives of ordinary European citizens.
If today was Election Day in the Netherlands, the Dutch euroskeptics around Geert Wilders would receive 18% of Dutch votes, and the most seats in the Dutch parliament. If today was Election Day in Germany, 10% of German votes would be in favor of the anti-Euro party AFD. Both parties would nearly double the number of seats: The PVV would win 10%, and the AFD 5.8% compared to the previous elections (Bundestagswahl 2017, 2017; Ipsos, 2017). Those two parties are no exception. Since the Brexit vote it should be clear for everyone that anti-Europe sentiments are arising.
The EU needs to listen to its citizens – and not only hear what they are saying, but also trying to get to the underlying motives.
People all over Europe are frustrated with the work and the policies of the EU. Many of the policies have had negative effects on the lower classes and middle classes, with rising inequality as a result. The building of a social and democratic Europe is one necessary answer to the rise of populism. But that alone will not be enough. The European Union does not even succeed in communicating what they have already accomplished.
Communication is not a one-way street
Communication is a two-way street. Before you can answer, you need to listen. The EU needs to listen to its citizens – and not only hear what they are saying, but also try to get to the underlying motives. If anti-European parties are so popular right now, where do these sentiments come from? Why are populists like Wilders in the Netherlands or Le Pen in France so popular? What do they hear that what we do not, and how do they answer?
According to a research by German economists, after each financial crisis in the past 150 years, populism has boomed: “On average, far-right parties increase their vote share by 30% after a financial crisis” (Funke, Schularick, & Trebesch, 2016). It’s the uncertainty, the worries and the everyday struggle of the people in a financial crisis that feeds populism. If you know what worries them, you can figure out how you may be able to take away the worries.
Know your audience
To have communication,you also need to answer. You also need to answer in a way that everyone, not only the highly-educated businessman, but also the average Joe or Maria understands. This is the biggest problem of the EU. Only a little more than 30% of Europeans (aged between 25 and 65) has followed higher education (OECD, 2017). Rick Lyman, Central and Eastern European Bureau Chief at The New York Times, wrote in December 2016 about the wide gap between the countryside and cities in Europe: “In the countryside, residents, on average, are older, poorer, less educated and more receptive to the populist message that they are the true protectors of their nation’s culture and heritage.” (Lyman, 2016) The EU needs to address these people as well, in a way they can understand and relate to.
The many different institutions all have their own social media account, each with a rather disappointing number of followers. And, most importantly, the posts were written from politicians for politicians.
With a little less than 50% of the Europeans using social media in 2017 (eMarketer, 2016) it is a good way to reach people. Two initiatives that do a pretty good job in this are WhyEurope and Pulse of Europe. Their communication is pretty straightforward: They emphasize why Europe is important and how the EU improves our lives. The messages are short and easy to understand, no matter which level of education you have:
It is important to note that these initiatives are not organized by the EU, but by European citizens. The official social media presence of the EU is far less impressive. Three things are striking: The many different institutions all have their own social media account. It is in essence positive that most of them are available in several languages, but there is a risk that the right hand does not know what the left hand does. Why not join forces in one account per language? In addition, each account has a rather disappointing number of followers. For example, right now the English-language account of the European Commision has a little less than 650,000 followers on Facebook; the European Parliament (which only exists in English) a little more than 2.1 million. With about 250 million social media users in Europe (eMarketer, 2016), there is a lot of room for improvement. And, most importantly, the posts were written from politicians for politicians, or at least the higher-educated elite:
The communication of the European Union towards its citizens is failing terribly. Although there might be enough effort and content, the EU does not manage to bring its message across to the public. Because it does not listen nor answer in a way the average EU citizen can understand.
Bundestagswahl 2017. (2017). Prognose für die Bundestagswahl 2017.
eMarketer. (2016). Social Network User Penetration in Western Europe, by Country, 2014-2020.
Funke, M., Schularick, M., & Trebesch, C. (2016). Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crisis, 1870-2014 (CESIFO Working Paper No. 5553).
Ipsos. (2017). De Peiling in detail.
Lyman, R. (2016). Like Trump, Europe’s Populists Win Big With Rural Voters.
OECD. (2017). Population with tertiary education (indicator). [Dataset].