Groups visiting the EU institutions in Brussels gaze in awe at the imposing buildings, seemingly impressed. Visitors to the Commission are lead like a horde of sheep to the Midday press briefing to watch the press officers manoeuvring to avoid saying anything at all of substance. The setting strikes me as belonging in an authoritarian regime rather than an international organization that is built on the fundaments of democracy. Another striking example of EU communication are the banners measuring at least 30 metres in height hung on the wall of the Berlaymont; last thing I saw the Commission announced we will soon enter anno domini 2011. Like someone remarked, that is an approach to communication that rather belongs in North Korea.
It is all PR
Much of what has been done on the economic front to keep the euro afloat displays an attitude on the part of both the Council and the Commission to limit their engagement to public relations, or public diplomacy rather. The evident lack of economic governance or even the lack of a realization that decisive visionary action is needed to mend the crisis of the common currency is disguised by engaging in communication that strives to give the public the impression that something is done about it. Putting European leaders on stage attempting to make them look photogenial in a picture release to convince the financial markets is hardly responsible economic policy. All along this year I have had the feeling that the consequences of the evident imbalances that the eurozone has to deal with have not been tackled at all by politicans, but the debate has been driven by media, think-tanks and financial analysts. It is not just failure to agree, but failure to approach the complexity and lack of strong ideas to address the matter. And to cover up, just throw in a range of press statements, fact sheets and high-level meetings with plenty of photo opportunities.
The Commission's traditional midday briefings have long since turned into exercises of juggling a maximum number of questions, most of them smart and provocative, in order to provide only evasive nonsensical replies. The European parliament does not strike me as much better; in my mind, an institution consisting of elected politicians should communicate itself, whereas the press officers seem to be under the impression they were hired to be spin doctors to avoid what they refer to as PR disasters, caused by MEPs out of line. The president of the European parliament is in their own texts hailed as a world leader, his every move and utterance giving rise to a number of photos and quotes which flood my e-mail account to the point of the unmanageable. Not to mention the Europarl TV, that costly flop that the rumour has it attracts some onethousand viewers only. My impression is that also the Commission headed by Barroso seems to think it exists only to the extent it communicates itself to the European public. But how much does it actually achieve, this endless stream of advertising campaign, leaflets, posters on EU policies, fact sheets and websites that all tout how much the EU does for the citizens?
The billion euro budget
All this does not come free. It is difficult to get an overview of exactly how much has been spent on the communication budgets over the last years, as the sums are split up for each institution and again in tenders for each directorate. However, considering that each tender ranges from a million to tens of millions of euro, it does add up in hundreds of millins of euro a year and that makes at least a billion over the last five or so years. This has been supported by massive recruitment efforts in the parliament and the commission, and the armada of press officers adds to the cost of personnel.
The EU information monopoly
My worry reagarding the EU communication policies are therefore threefold; the content, the cost and the distortion of markets for media professionals. As far as the content of this EU propaganda goes, it may not matter much how many maps of Europe are handed out at EU information points, but it is disturbing that there is a flow of information ever increasing in volume passing through unfiltered. The EU press officers are engaged in a collateral effort attempting to gain a monopoly on informing on the EU and apart from using their own channels they actively approach media outlets at local, regional and national level with their messages. The Brussels EU correspondents corps is gradually diminishing, but the poor overworked pale zombies left in the press rooms are bombarded with EU press releases and fact sheets. So far they do a good job of analyzing or ignoring the ready made so-called news the EU puts out, but there may be limits to their professional capacity when the number of correspondents shrinks due to the financial constraints most media outlets suffer from.
Distorted media markets
However, the EU communication policy does distort the media market by providing massive amounts of material, in particular pictures and audiovisual material, to be used free of charge. By so doing, independent photographers and camera crews lose business opportunities. The pictures commissioned by the EU are supposed to be used only for non-commercial purposes, but are in fact increasingly used by commercial newspapers and magazines. In some cases, access is not even granted to certain meetings for independent photographers. The free photos depict uneventful meetings between politicians dressed in black against a blue or grey background. Needless to say it is nothing exciting, but even so the EU propaganda pictures do stand out for their low quality and lack of message, except of course that of self-importance and arrogance of the EU leaders.